McDonnell Announces Program to Defray Costs of Rest Areas

Gov. Bob McDonnell announced Thursday a new cost-saving program designed to generate additional revenues to help defray the costs of operating the Commonwealth’s 42 safety rest areas and welcome centers.

In July 2010, McDonnell directed the Virginia Department of Transportation to work in partnership with other state agencies to identify and implement long-term strategies to generate new revenues through Virginia’s rest areas.

On March 16, VDOT issued a request for proposals for the new Sponsorship, Advertising, and Vending Enhancement program, which will enhance visitors’ experiences while maximizing the revenue generating assets of the rest areas.

Speaking about the new program, McDonnell says, “In these fiscally challenging times, we have to look for innovative new solutions for maintaining and operating the Commonwealth’s rest area and welcome center facilities. These facilities serve a critical role in providing a safe place for travelers to rest and providing information to tourists, businesses, and commuters on the many attractions and services the Commonwealth has to offer.

"By partnering with the private sector, we will save taxpayer dollars, and keep our rest areas and welcome centers open. Our administration is committed to making state government smaller and smarter, and the SAVE program is part of that overall effort.”

The SAVE program is one of the first of its kind among state transportation agencies. It will enable private-sector firms to establish paid sponsorships and advertising at rest areas and welcome centers and manage vending at these locations.

The goal of the program is to solicit innovative proposals that expand these services to offer additional vending and traveler information, while improving travelers’ experiences and generating new revenues to defray the costs of operating the facilities.

“The SAVE program is one of several steps we are taking to address the costs of maintaining and operating these critical facilities,” says Secretary of Transportation Sean T. Connaughton. “Last fall, VDOT issued new maintenance contracts for the facilities and the department continues to work with the public and private sectors to develop other innovative alternatives to the current operating structure.”

"It may be that you could have some hot sandwiches in a vending machine, which we would not be providing currently. And you could see other things such as other merchandise that could be available through a vending arrangement," says Greg Whirley, the VDOT Commissioner.

Last April, McDonnell reopened the last of the Commonwealth’s closed rest area facilities. These facilities serve an average of more than 90,000 travelers each day and provide convenient, safe places to rest for an estimated 33 million visitors each year.

Of the 42 rest areas around the Commonwealth that would go under contract, four of them are in the Valley.

Drivers at these rest areas had some different opinions on what Virginia should offer.

Some say they're already skeptical about what's in the vending machines now, and how long it's been in there.

While others say that offering more and thinking outside the box is important.

"States definitely have to be fiscally responsible at this time, many states are in budget crunches, but they could have farmers markets, they could have craft festivals," says Ruth Denardo, a driver traveling on I-81.

"They would do it in all the places at one time, very easily, bring in revenue, encourage people to stop at there rather than pulling off and going to Burger King," says Denardo.

However, others thought changes would be unnecessary.

"These rest stops are great, but it's not for entertainment and it's not for extra stuff. It's convenience for you, get rested, stretch your legs, and be on your way," says Helen Sheppard, who was traveling from Alabama to Pennsylvania.

Whirley says he is hoping to have all contract proposals in within 45 days and "set up shop" by July 1.