- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 27, 2004

RICHMOND — Virginia’s 41 highway rest areas and welcome centers were in such terrible condition five years ago that then-Gov. James S. Gilmore III, a Republican, said they were a “disgrace” to the state and proposed fixing them.

However, the condition of most of them has declined to where some tourists and business leaders are using such words as “cesspool,” “abysmal” and “embarrassment” to describe the filth, broken fixtures and pungent odor in the cramped facilities.

“Our welcome centers and rest areas are literally the front doors and first impressions of the state,” the Shenandoah Valley Travel Association wrote in an recent appeal to Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat. “Isn’t this situation a massive public-relations disaster waiting to happen?”

Such conditions are more troubling during such peak travel times as the holiday season, and association members say the problem should be fixed before large crowds arrive in 2007 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown.

Most of the rest areas and welcome centers were built in the 1960s and 1970s to accommodate only a fraction of the number of visitors they now receive. They also are symbolic of the state’s struggles to fund its transportation needs amid budget constraints.

Since 2001, the state has cut its six-year road-building plan by more than one-third, forcing the Virginia Department of Transportation to shift almost all its efforts to maintaining existing roads and facilities while putting off plans for new construction.

In other words, replacing the rest areas and welcome centers at a cost of several hundred million dollars is not on the immediate to-do list.

Charles Kostro, the agency’s special operations director, acknowledged that the state’s rest areas and welcome centers are outdated and no longer meet the demand. But he said they must compete with scarce resources and clearly rank below road and bridge safety issues.

“There are obviously a lot of priorities out there,” he said.

Just two of the agency’s 41 rest areas and welcome centers are new. In 2002, the state opened an $8 million rest area and welcome center on Interstate 85 northbound near the North Carolina line. Another center on Interstate 64 eastbound in New Kent County opened last year. It replaced a 28-year-old rest area poorly equipped to handle current vehicular volume, including traffic to such popular tourist destinations as Virginia Beach’s oceanfront, Colonial Williamsburg and Busch Gardens.

If money becomes available, the agency will have plans on hand to address other highway rest stops.

“We know we have work to do in some areas and need to make improvements, but I think overall Virginia compares well to other states,” Mr. Kostro said.

Many travelers disagree.

“I hate to say it, but they’re horrible,” said Joan Boehmer, a retired factory worker from Zion Grove, Pa., who traveled through Virginia last summer and winced in the dirty highway stop off Interstate 81 at Radford. “They’re old and dingy. Even when they’re clean, they look dirty.”

A sample of complaints received by the state’s transportation agency in the past 18 months reveal the extent of the problem. Copies of dozens of letters and e-mails that tourists, truckers and others sent to state officials were obtained by the Associated Press.

“The hand-washing units — I hesitate to call them sinks — in both the men and women’s rooms had no water, or almost none,” a Norfolk resident wrote to the governor after a visit to a rest area on southbound Interstate 95 in Caroline County.

A woman wrote: “My husband and I just finished a westward trip from Virginia to Montana. During those 22 days through 14 states, we had to stop at many rest areas. None of them, including some that were like ‘outhouses,’ were as dirty as the one on I-64 in the Short Pump (Richmond) area.”

Another person wrote: “I would rather use the woods.”

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