- The Washington Times - Friday, March 14, 2003

A popular Virginia Department of Transportation program that helps about 100,000 stranded motorists each year will be cut in half because of a lack of funds, officials said yesterday.
The Safety Service Patrol, which helps stranded drivers and disabled vehicles on major highways throughout the state, will see its annual budget cut from $8 million to $4 million, said VDOT Commissioner Philip Shucet.
About 65,000 of the 100,000 drivers who receive help for emergencies, such as running out of gas or having flat tires and breakdowns, were in Northern Virginia.
Mr. Shucet said he made the cuts as a last resort after slashing $90 million from administrative, equipment and other budgets. He said he left about 200 vacancies unfilled and transferred 18 employees in an equipment shop to another agency, and that further personnel cuts were impossible.
"This is probably without question one of the most popular programs VDOT operates," he said. "It's continually a source of pride, one we get a lot of feedback on."
Mr. Shucet said the department will do all it can to minimize the effect of the cuts, using its high-tech surveillance cameras to monitor traffic tie-ups caused by breakdowns and send help when necessary.
Deborah DeYoung, a spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said it appears that VDOT is doing its best to stretch its resources, but added that the cuts undoubtedly will exacerbate gridlock in Northern Virginia. While AAA responds to roughly four times as many calls for service as does the VDOT patrol in the region, many AAA calls are for motorists who can't get out of the driveway, as opposed to those stuck on major highways.
"Breakdowns account for 40 percent of traffic congestion," she said. "Using technology to stretch the dollars is good. But there's no way you can take half the money out of the program and maintain service anywhere close to what is now. … People will see more big traffic snarls."
Miss DeYoung said VDOT could raise money by charging people a fee for receiving the service. A $20 fee, for instance, applied to 100,000 motorists, would raise $2 million.
Mr. Shucet said funds for many administrative initiatives, including a $1.3 million annual program to plant wildflowers, were reduced. He did not know how much money was cut from that program.
VDOT spokeswoman Tamara Neale said she was not aware of any consideration the agency gave to charging a fee to stranded drivers.
The Safety Service Patrol program operates in four regions in the state: Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads, Interstate 95 in the Fredericksburg area, and Interstates 81 and 581 in the Roanoke area. The two most extensive programs are in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, and Mr. Shucet said the cuts are more severe in Hampton Roads.
In Northern Virginia, for instance, the program will still operate 24 hours a day, but the 23 part-time contractors who supplemented efforts of 34 full-time VDOT employees will be let go.
In Hampton Roads, the program had been operating 24 hours a day, but will be cut to eight hours a day, Monday through Friday. Mr. Shucet said those hours will be modified in the summer to allow for patrols on the weekend to accommodate heavy beach traffic.
Patrol hours also will be cut in the Fredericksburg and Roanoke regions.
The cuts have either been implemented or will take effect in the next few weeks.

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