Friday, August 7, 2009

What's Virginia to Do?

As Governor Kaine peregrinates his farewell laps around Virginia in his government limousine, he is, or should be, by the very nature of his current official tenure, to say nothing of the offices he held prior, and the campaigning done to attain them all, familiar with what facilities lie off what exits on our state roads. And most likely given his new position as the Chair of the DNC, he will for the most part still be chauffeured around, never fully experiencing the impact of his swan song decision to close the rest stops. But for the rest of us Commonwealthers, driving to a destination within the 39,598 square miles of Virginia, or long distance travelers just passing through, entering and exiting a roadway is a nothing more than a nuisance that adds nothing but extra time and hassle to a trip. Put simply, we don't know what's off the road, and don't particularly care.
Driving for any length of time on the open highway can be tiring and mesmerizingly hypnotic. Is the plan to encourage more motorists to drive drowsily and poorly, so law enforcement can write more tickets? The rest stop closures will then help the state's budget twofold - by decreasing expenditures and increasing revenues. One problem with that: Accidents. Can. Kill. Do we really want to put the lives of the citizens of the Virginia, and to some extent, the country, at risk over $500,000/year X 18, 19 or whatever the final number barricaded ends up being, noting the now scaled down plan was originally to close 25 of 42?
Remember why these facilities were built in the first place: SAFETY. If the roads aren't "safe," or merely perceived not to be, eventually there will be less traffic on them. The Commonwealth is not so large that you cannot Mapquest your way around it. The road less traveled needs less repair, but it also symbolizes a greater loss of commerce. At best, win-lose; we can do better.
Everyone is familiar with the phrase "are we there yet?" If you have young kids, you know how active they can be when confined to a vehicle, no matter how well equipped it is with babysitting gadgetry. Mr. Kaine's three children are grown; apparently he's forgotten. Strapped in doesn't mean strapped mouth, or strapped arms, or strapped legs. I. Have. To. Go. NOW. Baby Boomers/Seniors have the latter problem as well, as reluctant as some of us are to admit it, ubiquitous sudden urge syndrome commercials notwithstanding, making us squirm just like the youngsters. More problematic, because we are the ones doing the driving and have to pay attention to the road, not our bladders and bowels, giving dual meaning to the phrase "it's not healthy to hold it." And then there's the issue of pets. Diapers for all? Get in on the bottom of the S curve trend; time to buy stock in Pampers and Depends! If not, think of all the damage to car seats. Music to auto detailers ears!
So what's Virginia to do? Utilize the increasingly rare shoulders to stop and stretch? Good chance of personally getting hit or incurring property damage. Nah. Run into the woods - if you can find them - to answer nature's call? Maybe a guy thing, but not for us gals. Yes, some parts of the state are still rural, but life in 2009 isn't the Wild West, notwithstanding the attempt of this policy to send us back there.
Keep an empty jug in the trunk with the spare can of gasoline in case you get stuck, or should I say need to come unstuck? Another nascent industry waiting to be tapped, pardon the pun. I can think of many creative ways to use the receptacles after the fact in protest of this new policy, such as leaving them in line with the orange cones now obstructing the rest stops. Or better yet, deliver them to Richmond; send a symbolic message.
Coin operated port a potties every so many miles? Those quarters will add up and for motorists, it would be better than nothing. Run a Commonweathwide contest to decorate these monuments for contemporary times, Virginia's equivalent to DC's Donkeys and Elephants or New York City's Bulls and Bears. Then they'd be much prettier than mile markers, and with dual drawing power as tourist magnets. Think of it as putting lipstick on a pig, place for safety and with good lighting ... and don't forget to bolt the beauties down.
Federal Law requires that rest stops cannot be commercialized unless they are located on a turnpike or toll road. Duh! Just rename the roads and/or start charging for their use (another revenue raiser; West Virginia did that) if you want to do the Reagan Republican thing and contract them out. It's not like more toll roads aren't coming somewhere down the pike anyway, as a next step in making up the general budget shortfall or just paying for the infrastructure. VDOT just laid off 600 employees, idled more trucks and is committed to seeing only current contracts to completion. Let's call Routes 81, 95, 85, 64 and/or 66 intrastate something scenic or historic. How about Kaine Turnpike, in honor of this turning point in our state's history? Monikers memorializing current Virginia Secretary of Transportation Pierce Homer and VDOT Commissioner David Ekem would also be appropriate. The Governor seems to be banking on a Congressional waiver to allow businesses to run the Commonwealth's rest stops. According to the Federal Highway Commission statistics, that has only occurred in a handful of cases. August is recess time for the Senate and the House of Representatives, and getting anything passed, Obama deadlines notwithstanding, is a slow go. When the legislators come back, they will have gotten an earful from their constituents - the economy, health care - and Virginia's rest stops will not be utmost on their minds.
Far less complicated, and better yet, replace those unsightly blockades with toll taking devices at the entrances to the rest stops. I'd be happy to toss a coin as I go through a booth to get to the facility on the other side.
Lest we forget, the state built and is charged with maintaining these areas. So closing them is a lost investment of taxpayer money and there will still be the cost of minimal upkeep anyway to avoid their becoming roadside eyesores. So why not get creative? Organizations could sponsor part of, one, or more; Adopt a Highway, Adopt a Rest Stop. In return, the group's name would be put on a plaque, or a road sign if one entity alone adopted one area; public good will for the adopters would be generated at the same time. Or convert them to State Police barracks, with ancillary public restrooms monitored by surveillance cameras. Boy, would that make me feel safe, and void the argument claiming rest stop crime. Since revenue is the issue, this will put Virginia's finest closer to those they love to chase. Texas has done this, and added playgrounds and interactive kiosks, converting rest stops into attractions. Iowa has included gift shops featuring local (Norwegian) products. The Commonwealth could do something similar with its unremarkable Plain Janes, highlighting regional foods, wines and artisans, a variation of The Virginia Store and a roadside market. A welcoming Travel Plaza, moving the mall ever closer to the highway....and more potential retail traffic. The sweet smell of apples and sales tax, as we stop, shop and go. All for just a few additional frills! So why has the Governor pointed us in the opposite direction?
This state had the misfortune of not having Maryland's foresight in grandfathering the commercialization of its rest stops before the federal law took effect. OOOPS to Tim Kaine's predecessors. Louisiana has closed 24 of its 34 since 2000; they have a good excuse: Katrina. Maine, Vermont and Colorado have plans to do so; others, including Rhode Island, Indiana and Arizona are "thinking about it." Depending on what happens in the Commonwealth, the movement may be gaining momentum. The slogan of our 2009 Travel Guide says "Live passionately." Before we don't have the need to print as many of them, let's find some enthusiasm for tackling the problem from a human and fiscal standpoint. We in Virginia can be at the forefront of a win-win solution and conceptual redesign. For the state to be "...for lovers," it first needs to show its residents and potential tourists some love.

Karen Ann DeLuca