NEW KENT (AP) Amid budget cuts and layoffs of state government workers, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) is pressing ahead with construction of a $7.1-million rest stop on Interstate 64.
The 11,000-sq.-ft. building on the eastbound side of I-64 in New Kent County is slated for completion next summer. When finished, it will be the second most costly rest area in the state, topped only by an $8.1-million rest area and welcome center on I-85 at the North Carolina line in Mecklenburg County.
Critics said the high cost and palatial design of the New Kent facility — a Colonial-style building that resembles the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg — are signs of misplaced priorities on the part of Virginia transportation authorities.
The Commonwealth Transportation Board, which tells VDOT how it can spend taxpayer money, awarded the contract to design and build the New Kent rest area in June. That was the same month the board voted to eliminate 166 road-building projects from its six-year plan.
The rest area was approved at a time when VDOT was so strapped for cash it had asked contractors to suspend voluntarily some three-dozen highway projects to balance its books and had to allocate $142 million from its road construction program to fix potholes and pay for other maintenance work.
Some VDOT critics wonder why the transportation agency is spending so much money on opulent sanitary accommodations when it is having a hard time paying for new roads.
“Until VDOT can get its act together, why give them $7 million [to build a new rest area]?” asked Sanford Pankin of Hampton. “Would you give Enron more money?”
Pankin, a leader of a grassroots coalition that helped defeat a referendum in November that would have raised taxes to fund local highway projects, is convinced that the public’s lack of confidence in VDOT was a factor in the initiative’s defeat. He said the agency has for years been plagued by ineptitude and mismanagement.
When the budget-cutters began lopping projects from VDOT’s master plan, the New Kent comfort station was the only one to survive, said Cyndi Ward, the VDOT official in charge of the agency’s rest areas.
The new rest stop will feature an enclosed vending center with tables, space for a State Police office, fiber-optic cable, a multi-use rest room, a computer room, and an enclosed lobby containing travel and tourism information.
In fact, Ward said, it will be the “footprint” for Virginia’s future rest areas — if and when VDOT finds the cash to build them. The agency is calling this new generation of rest areas “safety, rest and information centers.”
Ward envisions them as “safe havens” where people can seek refuge in emergencies and during evacuations.
Ward said the New Kent center survived the budget-cutters’ ax because it’s one of the busiest in Virginia — handling more visitors than the westbound station on the same stretch of highway — and the only state rest area for travelers exiting from I-295 onto I-64 east headed for Hampton Roads.
VDOT officials had planned to raze and rebuild the westbound rest area in similar fashion, but that was before the agency’s six-year plan underwent major surgery.
The more modest, 2,300-sq.-ft. westbound station reopened for business in September after being closed for nearly a year and a half. It was shut down when its sewage recycling system began to fail, said Robert Prezioso, VDOT’s resident engineer for New Kent County.
“With the volume we were doing, the system couldn’t keep up with the ammonia smell,” Prezioso said.
Architect Delmar Dayton said VDOT’s only requirement for the new eastbound center was that it be designed in “traditional Virginia style, colonial style.” Dayton’s firm, Dayton, Thompson & Associates of Richmond, also drew up the plans for the I-85 rest area/welcome center and included many of the same design features as the New Kent facility.
For the New Kent rest area, the colonial motif will be especially appropriate in 2007, when the state celebrates the 400th anniversary of the first permanent English settlement in North America at Jamestown. The center is located a short drive from the exits to Jamestown and Colonial Williamsburg.
“The Jamestown celebration was one factor” in the decision to build the facility at New Kent at the expense of other planned rest areas, Ward said. “This could be a focal point” for visitors approaching Jamestown, she noted.