Rest area closures have broad impact

Times were tough for Eleanor Beard after an accident nearly paralyzed her hands 13 years ago. She was able to get a job with DTH Contract Services, the company that the Virginia Department of Transportation hires to maintain the state’s 42 rest areas.  

“There were some things I could do with my hands,” Beard said. “I couldn’t even make a fist at first. But after working, I can make a fist. [My hands] are much better now.”

Beard works at the west bound Interstate 64 rest area in Goochland. On July 21, Beard and 190 to 285 other DTH employees will be out of a job when VDOT closes 19 rest areas statewide. For the 73-year-old Louisa grandmother, her work was her rehabilitation, which is now gone.

“I’ll be okay,” Beard said. “But it’s the worst thing to ever happen to Goochland.”

Rhett Raynor, DTH president, said it could be hard for many of his employees to find a job as stable.

“Fifty percent of what we get paid goes directly to labor,” Raynor said. “When the state cuts the budget, they’re causing unemployment.”

Raynor said that the Goochland rest areas were one of the first in the state, and staff has maintained them to superb standards.

Roy Skeen has been travelling the I-64 corridor for years. Each week he drives from his home in Lexington to Norfolk where he works for NASA.

“I stop at every rest area,” Skeen said.

Skeen walks with a cane, but only when he first emerges from his pickup, until his legs warm up.

“I rely on these rest stops,” he said. “I dozed off once while I was driving, and I pulled off [on the west-bound rest area] and slept for 30 minutes. In that sense, the rest stop saved my life.”

The rest area closings come on the heels of VDOT’s $2.6 billion revenue short fall. In addition to VDOT cutting contract positions, they are also slashing 1,500 internal jobs to help ease their financial woes, said VDOT spokesman Greg Bilyeu.

“VDOT needs to close these rest areas as soon as possible in order to save money,” Bilyeu said. “None of these decisions are easy for the agency.”

The cuts come at time when federal stimulus money recently provided $694.5 million to boost state transportation funds.

“If they didn’t spend [so much] on that Taj Mahal [New Kent rest area], they’d have money to keep us open,” Beard said.

Kevin Moses, who has worked the night shift at the west bound Goochland rest area for 14 years, is convinced that other means could have been found to reach a balanced end.

“[VDOT] hired engineers to come out here and tell us to move that can or cut that grass,” Moses said. “You really need an engineer to do that?”

Despite the outcry, the situation creates an opportunity for local convenience stores.

“I think it’ll be good for business,” said Randy Riddle, assistant manager of Siebert’s in Oilville. “But it’s a terrible idea, closing all them rest areas. Especially late at night when most [gas] stations are closed.”

Tourism in Virginia is also expected to see some hits, according to Megan Svajda of the Virginia Hospitality and Tourism Association. Svajda also commented on the lack of infrastructure in small towns to withstand the increase in demand for rest services.

“It’s going to have a huge impact on localities,” Svajda said. “The [exit ramps] aren’t built for the kind of traffic they are going to see. In the long run, it’s going to cost VDOT more to repair the roads that weren’t built to sustain high volume traffic. And the locals will foot the bill.”

Svajda added that many local businesses will be hurt because their primary advertising was through the brochures that decorate rest area halls.

“A lot of them can’t afford to do magazines or signs, so they do a brochure,” Svajda said. “Hotels and restaurants, they have large groups coming to them from rest areas.”

Truckers are also facing a dilemma. With fewer areas available to catch much-needed sleep, it puts a strain on making their mandatory 10 hours of daily rest.

After Goochland’s rest areas are closed, motorists will travel 108 miles between stops on the east bound side. This has Goochland residents worried.

“You go by [the rest stop] at 4 or 5 in the morning and that’s all you see is truckers,” said Andrew Pryor, District 1 supervisor.

At the board of supervisors meeting on July 7, the board passed a motion to formally object to the state’s decision to close down Goochland’s rest areas.

Clayton Boyce, public relations vice president of the American Trucking Association, said that they are still trying to overturn the closings.

“We wrote a letter to the governor,” Boyce said. “We didn’t receive much of a response… The whole point of these rest areas was to provide people a safe place to pull off, stretch their legs.”

Boyce is also worried that more motorists will stop on the highway shoulder, which can lead to accidents.

“Just last year a couple pulled off the side of the road to switch drivers, and one of them was struck by a car and killed,” Boyce said.

For Beard, there is nothing positive about the closings.

“We have old people who can’t go to the bathroom every 120 miles,” Beard said. “And the truckers, they remember us around Christmas time, and we remember them.”

Originally published in the Central Virginian.

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