- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 7, 2009

ROANOKE | Travelers who count on Virginia’s no-frills rest areas as places to stop are about to find their passage through the state less comfortable.

The state will close nearly half of its interstate rest areas July 21 as officials struggle with a $2.6 billion shortfall in the transportation budget.

The closings will save an estimated $9 million a year, Virginia Department of Transportation spokesman Jeff Caldwell said. The state initially planned to close 25 of the 42 rest areas, but a public outcry caused them to trim the number to 19.

While other states are considering closing rest areas, few have taken that step in reaction to the economic downturn. But Vermont did so, closing four of its 20 welcome centers two months ago, said Agency of Transportation spokesman John Zicconi.

Louisiana has closed 24 of its 34 rest areas since 2000, but transportation officials did so because it would cost at least $8 million to upgrade them to federal standards.

Colorado closed two areas last month that needed repairs. Tennessee may close some rest areas for remodeling, according to a Department of Tourism Development spokeswoman, but officials there are still smarting from what proved to be widely unpopular closings of welcome centers in 2002.

Virginia’s closings were approved effective July 1, but officials decided not to inconvenience travelers during the Fourth of July holiday weekend.

“I think it’s pretty sad,” said Donna Malcolm of Charlotte, N.C., who with her husband and 1-year-old daughter stopped Monday at an Interstate 81 stop destined to be closed in Troutville, just north of Roanoke. “It’s definitely a lot more of an inconvenience to try to find a gas station.”

The rest area had a steady stream of travelers, with cars waiting for parking spaces.

Dawn Clark of Spring Hill, Tenn., was with her family’s two dogs on the grassy knoll designated for pets. She didn’t like the idea of having to walk them around a commercial area instead.

“They get real panicky when cars are so close,” she said.

Mr. Caldwell said the public was most upset about the original plan to close all but two welcome centers at opposite ends of the 325-mile stretch of I-81 that traverses the state from north to south. As a result, officials decided to keep four more open, but seven along the interstate will close.

Long-distance truckers had been furious over the prospect of losing parking places along the highways. But state officials came up with a plan to offset the spaces lost at closed centers with 225 additional truck-parking spaces at the 23 rest areas and welcome centers that will remain open. In addition, transportation officials will remove two-hour parking limits, enabling truckers to get their required 10-hour breaks.

Mr. Caldwell said tourist attractions that have gotten business from travelers who picked up their brochures at rest areas were still concerned about the closings. For that reason, he said, the state will delay closing one area - a Manassas welcome center on Interstate 66 - until Sept. 16.

• Associated Press writers Doug Simpson in Baton Rouge, La., Charles Pulliam in Denver and Duncan Mansfield in Knoxville, Tenn., contributed to this report.

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