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VDOT considers privatized rest areas

By Andy Jenks - bio | email

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - Many of Virginia's highway rest areas were shut down this year, as a way to help close a major gap in transportation funding. But transportation leaders are not giving up in the effort to re-open them.

It was the summer of scaling back for VDOT. And winter doesn't look much better.

"The fact of the matter is, money just continues to dwindle," said Jeff Caldwell, VDOT's director of communications.

Faced with a multi-billion dollar revenue gap, Virginia leaders made the unpopular decision this year, to close 19 (out of 42)  public rest areas on Interstate highways. Now, the talk is turning. Today, the Commonwealth Transportation Board heard from an industry expert on privatization.

"We would absolutely pursue privatization if it was available to us," Caldwell said.

In one scenario, rest areas could be operated by chain restaurants or gas stations. That would take the burden off of taxpayers, except for one small problem: On non-toll highways like I-95 and I-64, federal law prohibits it.

"We are hindered by this Federal law. There's no way we can sell of these facilities or privatize these  facilities until that policy is changed."

The law was designed in the 1960's, to protect the small-town businesses that were bypassed when the highways were built. VDOT believes, it's time for a change.

"It's something we  really want to do in Virginia. We've been pursuing law and policy changes to try and let us do that to reopen  those rest areas, or turn over the ones that are left to private entities," Caldwell said.

So far, transportation leaders have had little luck pursuing that change. But with so many other states in the same position, momentum may finally be on their side.

Since it would take an act of Congress to turn the shuttered rest stops over to private businesses, it's unclear  how long Virginians can expect them to remain closed.

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