Rest Stop Rodeo

Who would have thought that the biggest issue of the Summer of 2009 would have been…rest stops?

Of course, when you think about it, it encompasses all the elements of a hot-button political issue: the economy, transportation, the free market, the tenth amendment / federal-state relations, etc.

If you don’t know what I am referring to, Gov. Tim Kaine decided that the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) must shutter nearly twenty rest areas throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia – you know, those great places to stop and get pamphlets for the Luray Caverns or Colonial Williamsburg, as well as to grab a jolt of caffeine in a can and take care of, er, personal business.

The governor predicts this will save Virginia about $9 million.

And, yesterday, he followed through with the promise.

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA10) led the charge last week to keep the rest areas open, even introducing an amendment to a transportation bill in Congress to allow the state to commercialize the rest stops, which would enable them to become self-sustaining.

Congress, for whatever reason (some predict it was opposition from Rep. Tom Perriello), rejected the request in a House Transportation subcommittee.

Wolf has called the closing of the stops a terrible idea. “We are putting hundreds of thousands of motorists at risk,” he said and has implored the governor to reverse course on this closure.

Part of the reason for cutting the stops is because Virginia faces a budget shortfall.

“Ultimately, the governor has to balance the transportation budget just like we have to balance all other budgets. There are a lot sacrifices that we have to make,” said Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, Jody Wagner.

The irony of this statement by Wagner is she started this whole trend of budget deficits when she was then Secretary of Finance and overestimated state revenues.

Last July, Sen. Mark Obenshain warned of the dangers of Wagner’s predictions:

“[Her] budget projections presumed that Virginia’s tax collections would grow at a rate of 2.2% in 2009 and then at the stunning rate of 6.8% in 2010. Even when they were first revealed, the Governor’s estimates appeared to have been pulled out of thin air.

“Why are these projections important? The Governor used them in establishing his spending levels for the Commonwealth’s budget for the next two years. His Secretary of Finance [Wagner] and his administration told the General Assembly that it should rely on these projections in adopting a budget. Of course, if the projections are high, Virginia will face a budget shortfall – or a deficit.”

Which is what we face today and is why these rest stops are being closed.

This fact is not lost on Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, who is being challenged by Wagner.

“I understand the financial pressures that VDOT is trying to relieve, but this is not the right way to bring your budget into balance. Clearly, closing the rest stops is neither a financial necessity nor in the best interest of Virginia,” Bolling wrote to Virginia Secretary of Transportation Pierce Homer. “Rest stops are assets to Virginia’s transportation system, not simply services, and they should be prioritized as such in our budgeting.”

Another issue here is how the law is written. When VDOT faces a deficit, apparently the first items on the chopping block are things like rest areas. Republican Bob McDonnell has vowed that within 90 days of taking office he’d get the law changed and reopen the rest stops. His Democratic opponent, Creigh Deeds, followed McDonnell’s lead and also agreed that the law should be changed to permit VDOT more discretion on where they make their cuts.

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