July 22, 2009 [LINK / comment]

Virginia is for closures?

Yesterday marked the end of the line for 18 of the 42 rest areas along Interstate highways in Virginia. (One more, in Manassas, will close this fall.) The rest stops on both sides of I-81 near Mount Sidney in Augusta County are now closed, as is the southbound rest stop at New Market. That means anyone driving from Northern Virginia into the Shenandoah Valley will have to wait until they get close to Lexington before they can, ahem, "relieve themselves." See the VDOT Website. What an outrage! Political leaders from both parties have come together on this issue, demanding that steps be taken to get those rest areas open ASAP. Otherwise, the state's reputation as an attractive tourist destination will erode. See the News Leader. Well, whenever Bob McDonnell and Creigh Deeds agree on some major policy issue, you know something fishy is going on.

Actually, this needless aggravation was years in the making, and though Gov. Tim Kaine deserves much of the blame for this drastic cutback, it is basically the result of a showdown over fiscal policy. Why can't the issue be resolved effectively? Mainly because people expect elected officials to do the impossible, delivering more services without increasing the tax burden. Also because of lobbyists for the travel and trucking industries who block attempts to charge users a reasonable fee. Why not "pay to pee"? As I suggested in September 2006, in the midst of one episode of the never-ending partisan battles over the transportation budget in Virginia:

Just levy a $100 fine on every truck that parks along exit ramps and rest areas. Among the side benefits, that would also ease traffic congestion on I-81, give more business to truck stops and motels, and make rail transportation more competitive. Rest stops in Virginia at night have become dangerously overcrowded with semi-trailer trucks that are basically freeloading at the public's expense. Enough of that, already!

Kudos to State Senator Mark Obenshain for explaining "the games people play" in Richmond. From his Facebook page:

Eliminating nineteen rest areas -- eighteen on July 21 and another in September -- to save a mere $9 million is, however, reckless and unnecessary. ... [It's like] the Washington Monument Strategy. Year after year, Congress would call upon the National Park Service to find ways to operate more efficiently, and invariably the response would be that if they had to cut one more penny, they would have no choice but to close the Washington Monument.

Right he is. I vividly remember seeing silly examples of the Washington Monument ploy first-hand in the 1980s, whenever there was a budget showdown between President Reagan and Congress, so I commented:

Thank you for bringing up the "Washington Monument Strategy," the oldest bureaucratic trick in the book. We don't need to make VDOT into an even bigger empire than it is by merging it with DRPT, we need to explore creative privatization and user fee options to keep those rest areas open.

Shame on VDOT! (And shame on us.)