- The Washington Times - Monday, September 15, 2003

Virginia Department of Transportation is spending about $722,000 a year in taxpayer money — or almost $6 million over eight years — for a storefront in the Springfield Mall that gives commuters in-depth information about the construction of the new Springfield interchange.

The 2,000-square-foot center features an 8-by-8 satellite map of Springfield, a glass-enclosed model of the finished interchange and six television monitors showing live feeds from traffic cameras placed at various angles on the site, known as the Mixing Bowl.

The center also offers free merchandise — including pens, pencils, plastic construction hats, key-chain flashlights, miniature U.S. and Virginia flags, bumper stickers and road maps from most of the 50 states.

Despite such useful information and good publicity for a project that could cause major headaches for nearby residents and motorists, some taxpayers and at least one elected state official have said the center is not worth the money.

“It seems very expensive,” said Delegate Robert G. Marshall, Manassas Republican, who was unaware Virginia is spending that much money.

Mr. Marshall drafted a transportation-bond bill after the Northern Virginia Transportation Referendum was defeated last November. The referendum would have raised regional transportation taxes for Northern Virginia to finance projects to relieve traffic congestion.

“We need to keep the public informed about the roads, but I’m not sure this is the best use of money,” he said.

Cindy Murray of Burke, who recently stopped by the center and picked up a few free pencils, said she was “appalled” to hear how much the center is costing taxpayers.

“We don’t need that store and I don’t need these pencils,” she said.

But VDOT officials and other state legislators disagree.

“It’s an appropriate use of funds,” said Sen. Richard L. Saslaw, Springfield Democrat.

Virginia touts the Springfield Interchange Project Information Center as the first such center in the nation located in a retail setting. Residents can get answers about the project, check on its progress or learn whether detours will divert traffic into their neighborhoods.

The center had an influx of commuters last month when VDOT announced crews would close the interchange for two consecutive weekends to complete bridge work.

The center opened in 1999 when construction of the interchange began. It is on the mall’s lower level next to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) Express office and Target. Construction of the interchange is scheduled to be completed by 2007.

The state pays about $11,000 a month to lease the space, $45,000 for the five-member staff and $50,000 a year for the printed materials and handouts. The total cost is about $722,000 a year, according to VDOT. The state also paid $250,000 to furnish and design the store.

“We try to be just like Banana Republic and any other store in the mall,” said Steve Titunik, a spokesman for the center.

However, the center gives away its merchandise, which angers commuters who think $6 million is too much money for a state in a budget crisis to spend.

“There are a lot of things in life I like that are not worth $6 million,” said James Parmelee, president of the Republicans United for Tax Relief and chairman of NorthernVirginiaGOP.com.

“If we are, in fact, in a budget crisis, this is one thing we could look at for a reduction,” he said.

Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, was forced to make dramatic budget cuts in his first 18 months in office, particularly in VDOT.

Initially Mr. Warner cut VDOT’s spending by more than $3 billion. Later in 2002, he was forced to shut down 12 DMV branch offices, lay off more than 500 employees and cut service hours.

The General Assembly restored funding last winter for most of the employees, and Mr. Warner reopened the 12 branch offices. Virginia now has about $54 million in revenue left over from the 2003 fiscal year, which ended June 30. However, about $45 million has already been allotted for next year.

Mr. Parmelee said the state could use the $6 million for other traffic- calming solutions. For example, VDOT could spend some of the money to properly time traffic lights.

“There are a lot of low-cost solutions to improving traffic,” he said.

Mr. Parmelee also said DMV should set up a kiosk instead of opening a store.

The Springfield Interchange project has a Web site, www.springfieldinterchange.com, and a telephone hot line for the public. The number is 877/959-5222.

But Mr. Titunik said the store offers “the vista — the whole package.”

In addition to VDOT’s information center, Fairfax County operates the Connector Store, which sells train, Metro and bus tickets. It brings in about $40,000 a month in ticket sales. Fairfax County pays about $2,400 a month to run the store. About 100 people visit the store each day.

Commuter Robert Hall of Rippon, Va., said the store is a convenient place to buy train tickets.

“I [also] just go in there to get some freebies,” said the 49-year-old Hall while holding a motor-oil funnel, a coloring book and a 6-inch ruler bearing the Springfield interchange logo.

Other commuters said the store is a worthwhile service.

“I think this information center is a terrific step to keep the traveling public informed,” one respondent wrote in a survey. “Not knowing what is going on is very frustrating to a motorist.”

Another respondent wrote, “Please continue to keep [the store] open.”

Mr. Titunik would also like to see the store remain open.

“This is about more than the interchange project,” he said. “It is for all of VDOT. We have gone way beyond what we thought we would.”

The center has a section devoted to the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Project. So Mr. Titunik thinks some space could be given to other state agencies, projects or points of interest.

The center already has hundreds of brochures featuring some of the state’s popular tourist attractions including Civil War battlefields, Richmond, Charlottesville, Norfolk and Virginia Beach.

VDOT engineers also use the center to host engineers from other countries, who come to learn about the interchange design, which will include 30 ramps, 41 miles of roadway, 50 bridges and 24 lanes at its widest point. Engineers use the 11 satellite photos and projection images that hang on the wall to teach engineers and commuters about the massive project.

On other days, Boy Scout troops use a center conference room for meetings.

Mr. Titunik said with the help of the Connector Store, customers are reminded of commuter alternatives such as mass transportation. However, Mr. Parmelee said VDOT defeated the purpose by requiring visitors to travel through the interchange to get to the information center.

Mary Shaffrey contributed to this report.

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