- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 21, 2009

RICHMOND | Roadside grass will grow higher, 19 interstate highway rest stops will close and highway workers will lose jobs as Virginia’s road money dries up.

Transportation Commissioner David Ekern outlined recommendations for funding cuts that are being presented Wednesday and Thursday to the Commonwealth Transportation Board.

The worst economic downturn in 70 years, declining revenues from gasoline taxes and reductions in federal highway are forcing Virginia to trim $2.6 billion in construction, service and administrative cuts over the next six years.

Construction loses $2 billion in the cuts. The rest comes from consolidations and job cuts within the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) and cuts to services and some maintenance not considered essential.

Many of the rest areas targeted for closure will be in the state’s most populous region, Northern Virginia. Officials initially proposed closing 25 rest areas but relented on six of them after public hearings.

The bulk of the rest area closures are in Northern Virginia, Mr. Ekern said, partly because of the abundance of commercial alternatives such as restaurants, hotels and gas stations at interchanges off the freeway.

Mr. Ekern said some of the closed rest areas might be reopened under commercial management provided that Congress changes an existing federal prohibition against it.

“Virginia, with its strong [public-private partnership laws] I think would be well-positioned to move very quickly if the law were amended,” he said in a 45-minute telephone conference with reporters.

Most of the 23 rest areas to remain open are along rural stretches of Interstates 81 and 64. Mr. Ekern said officials felt there should be no more than 120 miles between rest stops.

A preliminary proposal to eliminate 225 truck parking spaces along interstate highways was dropped. VDOT will retain all 783 of the slots where drivers of big rigs can pull over for a brief rest. Mr. Ekern said that the two-hour parking limit will be expanded, but that overnight parking won’t be allowed.

Mowing along interstates and primary and secondary state highways will be scaled back to just three times per growing season, and then only a few feet off the pavement, not to the edge of the state right of way.

Safety and motorist assistance patrols - the white vehicles that resemble police cruisers except for the amber flashing lights instead of blue ones - will be unchanged in Northern Virginia, reduced in Hampton Roads and VDOT’s Fredericksburg districts, and eliminated everywhere else effective July 1.

“Our recommendation is to scale our service back to about 2001 levels,” Mr. Ekern said. The cutbacks will save about $6.5 million.

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