Wednesday, September 30, 2009

What's Virginia to Do?

Bob McDonnell pledges to reopen the now 19 closed rest stops within 90 days of taking office as Governor in January 2010. Not to be outdone, Creigh Deeds claims he will do it in 60 days. The Republican candidate's website sports a Press Release outlining a four pronged approach; the Democratic contender is mostly a belated echo chamber, sans concrete funding implementation details. In view of the public backlash, both are giving lipservice to the issue in an effort to get elected. But the discourse over the transportation budget still seems to be focused on roads and rail, with the human capital they serve and the needs of the here and now taking a backseat. With the recent closure of the Interstate 66 W Welcome Center at Manassas, approximately two months after the 18 others, and with less than two months remaining in the campaign, the question then becomes, roughly two months after inauguration, what's Virginia to do?
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. Not 9 million a year, or a more limited operational budget, but not a zero outlay either. So why not get creative?
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, and have dual drawing power as tourist magnets. Think of it as putting lipstick on a pig. Replace those unsightly blockades with toll taking devices at the entrances. I'd be happy to toss a coin as I go through a booth to get to the facility - and photo op - on the other side. I suspect others would as well.
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 continue that hoary, ghost of the 1980s, "get it off the government's balance sheet" strategy 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 recently 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.
Both candidates favor this approach, with McDonnell's appellation for it being "creative financing structures," but they seem 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. More problematic to overcome may be local mercantile contrariety, the reason one of Virginia's own, Eric Cantor, actively opposed the Wolf Amendment during Governor Kaine's failed attempt.
Organizations could sponsor part of, one, or more; Adopt a Highway, Adopt a Rest Stop. McDonnell proffers this as an "immediate" approach. Why not consider it permanently? 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. The Republican candidate proposes assigning those sentenced to community service or eligible for work release programs to do the landscaping and custodial work. Since money is the issue, this will put Virginia's finest closer to those they love to chase and need to watch, maximizing the bang for the taxpayer buck. Boy, would that make me feel safe, and void the argument claiming rest stop crime. 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, going beyond the beautification suggested above, highlighting regional foods, wines and artisans, thus blunting parochial opposition. A welcoming Travel Plaza, giving the captive itinerant a snapshot sense of the state, moving the mall ever closer to the highway....and more potential retail traffic. The sweet smell of peanuts 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? And why do both candidates primarily want to follow suit, with McDonnell going a step further by including divestiture of the state ABC stores in the transportation discourse? Spruce up their lackluster facades and product mix as well, and make "Shopping Virginia" the patriotic alternative to not only save the rest stops, but to augment the transportation and general budget, avoiding the distasteful and divisive revenue raisers of hiking taxes, something Deeds recently indicated he would consider as a last resort, or off shore drilling, which is on the Republican's radar. Sometimes you have to spend a little money to make much more. Inspire "Virginialism," a sonorous brand, instead of separatist, regional warfare.
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. 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," on this, the fortieth anniversary of the slogan, it first needs to show its residents and potential tourists some love. For the candidates, that means blowing more than an air kiss to get a vote and planting more than goblins and skeletons, of a plan, or of their or the Commonwealth's past, on the cheeks of the James River. It is not the time for another OOOPS. Or Trick or Treat.

Karen Ann DeLuca