Officials express frustration as state boards up 18 rest areas
July 15, 2009
By Drew Houff, The Winchester Star
Winchester — With Tuesday’s shuttering of 18 rest areas and another closure planned for September, Virginia’s budget squabbles have now made their way to the Interstate Highway System.
The closures have become political in nature, pitting Democratic Gov. Timothy M. Kaine and his appointees to the Commonwealth Transportation Board against state Republicans, who say the move is an attempt to force GOP leaders to fund additional highway projects amid the economic downturn.
The area’s representative on the CTB, former Shenandoah University president James A. Davis, in June attempted to delay the closure of the 19 rest areas.
His motion would have kept them open until additional revenue sources could be found.
He said the public may not have fully understood what was at stake, despite complaints from AAA — an 800,000-member organization for travelers — about the closing of the facilities.
Del. C. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, said the closing of the rest areas will hurt the state.
The rest areas, operated by the Virginia Department of Transportation, include the Welcome Center at Clear Brook, which will remain open.
Jeff Caldwell, VDOT’s director of communications, said the agency sought public suggestions as it tried to make cuts in transportation funding.
The public comments altered the final plan considerably, he said.
FFor example, the original plan closed all of the Interstate 81 rest areas in Virginia — a span of 319 miles. The only exceptions were to be the Welcome Center in Bristol and the other in Clear Brook.
After public comment, Caldwell said, five rest areas along I-81 will remain open.
Those staying open are for northbound traffic at mile marker 262 at New Market; at mile marker 195 at Fairfield; at mile marker 129 at Ironto; at mile marker 108 for southbound traffic at Radford; and at mile marker 13 for truck traffic at Abingdon.
“Our guideline was to have one open so there is not much more than a 120-mile span between rest areas,” Caldwell said. “That is about a two-hour drive, which is what is recommended.”
He said the closure of some rest areas, including the ones for northbound and southbound traffic at Mount Sidney (mile marker 232), was chosen because drivers would have other options available to make a stop.
Caldwell said the rest areas staying open reflect a need by travelers to have a place to stop.
He said the closure of 19 rest areas — seven on I-81, four on I-85, four on I-95, two on I-64, and two on I-66 — is part of VDOT’s efforts to help ease a $2.6 billion budget gap in the next six years.
Each rest stop costs about $500,000 annually to operate.
State Sen. Jill H. Vogel, R-Upperville, said the decision to close the rest areas will hurt residents of her district, as well as other drivers.
“This is a serious safety issue,” she said Tuesday. “It is a place where a large truck can stop. It’s a comfort issue, a safety issue when there are not enough places for them to be able to stop. This isn’t a luxury; it is a necessity.
“I’m disappointed the governor doesn’t view it in the same way. It is within the governor’s purview to halt this directive so that we would not see money taken out of rest areas.”
As chairman of the House Committee on Transportation, May watches transportation needs closely.
He said he is hopeful that Congress may lift the federal ban on private business involvement in the rest areas.
May said Kaine also seemed willing to push for the privatization. “It is a safety issue, a quality of life issue, and an economic development issue.”
He added that one of the rest areas that closed this week, at Ladysmith at mile marker 107 on I-95, is one he was known to use traveling to and from the General Assembly in Richmond.
Gordon Hickey, Kaine’s press secretary, said in an e-mail Tuesday that the governor had considered moving money from other budget items but decided in the end to close the rest areas.
Davis said his chief concern was the appearance of the closed rest areas and the signal this would send to visitors in Virginia.
“I believe they should clear the sites, remove the buildings, and make it look like nothing was ever there,” he said. “The appearance of fences and gates is the worst thing for Virginia.”
Gilbert said state officials could have found a way around closing the rest areas.
“I think it is self-evident to the commonwealth that it’s a relatively insignificant amount of money in the scheme of the things of the public’s transportation budget,” he said in an interview Monday.
“I’m concerned that the department, specifically the governor and the secretary, really want this to be a pawn in a larger game of chicken over transportation taxes.”
— Contact Drew Houff at
Student’s letter gets the attention of state senator
Plea for more school funds earns invitation to capital
July 01, 2009
By Laura Oleniacz, The Winchester Star
Winchester — One seventh-grader’s concerns about cuts to Frederick County Public Schools’ middle-school sports programs has taken her to the heart of state politics in Richmond.
Kayla McDaniel, 12, was busy this month penning letters to School Board members, state legislators, and even President Barack Obama.
Her letter-writing campaign was motivated by county school officials’ proposal to eliminate middle-school sports due to a projected $12.2 million budget shortfall in fiscal year 2010, which begins July 1.
Kayla said the loss of athletic programs would be devastating to her and some of her friends.
“My life has been pretty much about sports in the last eight years, since kindergarten,” she wrote in a letter to state Sen. Jill H. Vogel, R-Upperville. “Sometimes when I am feeling down, I remember that at least I am good at playing basketball.”
The Adm. Richard E. Byrd Middle School student said in her letter that she tries to keep up her grades in order to play basketball, and that she believes abandoning sports could lead to increases in obesity, drug use, youth gangs, fights, and students skipping school.
In addition to the possibility of losing athletic programs, Kayla is concerned about increased class sizes due to projected employee layoffs and salary reductions for teachers.
“If classroom size increases, no teacher would even have the time to even try to understand us or for that matter, care about understanding us,” she wrote.
When Vogel read the letter, she invited Kayla to visit her during the General Assembly session in Richmond.
Kayla said she was “shocked.”
“It’s really nice to see that someone actually listens and cares, and doesn’t just look at [letters from constituents] and throw them to the side and stuff,” she said Friday.
Although Kayla and her classmates can’t vote, children are among the most important members of Vogel’s constituency.
“They should be everybody’s priority, and that’s why I’m always delighted to respond whenever they contact me,” Vogel said in a phone interview Friday.
Kayla and her mother Jodi Blanton drove to Richmond Wednesday to meet Vogel in her office at the General Assembly Building.
They were guided to the Capitol, where mother and daughter sat in the front row of the gallery above the Senate floor, which is reserved for family and special guests.
Vogel introduced Kayla and her mother to the senators, and they were greeted by Lt. Gov. William T. Bolling, president of the Senate.
They received a round of applause from the legislators, Blanton said. “They clapped for us and welcomed us to the Capitol.”
They watched about an hour of the session, took a tour of the building, stopped at a McDonald’s restaurant for lunch, and drove home.
Kayla said that during her discussion with Vogel, the senator asked what it would be like if she didn’t have middle-school sports.
“And I told her that I would pretty much be bored all the time,” she said, adding that sports motivates her to do well in school.
Her mother said Vogel was responsive to Kayla’s concerns, but the General Assembly’s session was scheduled to end today, so it is unlikely that much more can be done.
“But she’s going to continue to fight for the money for public schools,” Blanton said.
Vogel said she has made efforts to restore funding for public safety and education that was removed in Gov. Timothy M. Kaine’s proposed state budget to counteract the revenue shortfall.
“She very much supported Kayla’s perspective, Kayla’s comments,” Blanton said.
In addition to taking the trip to Richmond, Kayla attended a county School Board meeting Feb. 9, where Blanton read Kayla’s letter during a public hearing on the proposed school budget.
Kayla was too embarrassed to speak, and when she was asked to stand, she turned “three shades of red,” Blanton said.
“That’s when I decided to write [other] letters to the president [and state officials],” Kayla said. “Because I saw that when I was there, it was mostly adults that were speaking, and not really any other kids were there.”
Some of her friends, including seventh-grader Madison Pugh, helped Kayla to point out things that “bugged her” about the proposed budget cuts.”
“I hope they just see that kids actually care about what’s going on,” Madison said, “and if you cut things that’s close to them, it can take really permanent affects on them.”
— Contact Laura Oleniacz at