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RICHMOND — A national insurance company mascot will beckon to visitors at the rest area on Interstate 77 in Lambsburg and other such facilities around the state, due to increasing corporate sponsorship opportunities under Gov. Bob McDonnell.
After then-Gov. Tim Kaine closed some of the state rest areas in a round of cuts during his last budget, McDonnell reversed that decision as one of his first acts when he won the state office.
The governor’s office now says that Virginia officials drove into new territory last week when they announced the first-ever rest area sponsorship in the country, signing with Geico to promote new “Safe Phone Zones” at the state’s 43 interstate pull-offs.
That means that the insurance company’s brand — the face of the recognizable green, talking gecko with the foreign accent — will greet the 33 million travelers who use the public facilities each year.
McDonnell explained that this comes as a part of the Virginia Department of Transportation’s “Sponsorship, Advertising and Vending Enhancement” program intended to “generate additional revenues to help defray the cost of operating” the welcome centers.
“My administration has moved aggressively to find innovative solutions for maintaining and operating Virginia’s rest areas and welcome centers, which provide a safe place for travelers to rest and gather information about the many attractions and services Virginia has to offer,” McDonnell said. “By partnering with the private sector, we are not only keeping our rest areas open, but we are making our roads safer by discouraging distracted driving.”
At the same time, the governor also announced a three-year contract with CRH Catering Co. from Connellsville, Pa.
While details on this partnership are few in the news release, state officials say that the goal is “to develop and manage a new program to generate additional revenues that will help offset operating costs of the commonwealth’s rest areas and welcome centers, which total approximately $21 million annually.”
Adding the revenue from these deals together, state officials say that will take in $2 million from the new vending and sponsorship contracts.
While state officials mostly concentrated on the economics of the partnership, a Geico spokesman addressed the safety issue.
“As we all know, distracted driving is a major problem,” Joe Thomas, GEICO’s regional vice president, was quoted in the state’s news release. “GEICO is committed to combating distracted driving and we are proud to work with the Virginia Department of Transportation on this issue. We all want to let drivers know about the Safe Phone Zones in Virginia, where people can take a break from driving at the state’s welcome centers and rest areas, and make phone calls and answer texts in a comfortable, convenient and safe environment.”
Sam Dickson, the Carroll County Board of Supervisors chairman, had a mixed reaction to the program, when asked for comment by The Gazette.
“I guess it’s got to be done or they wouldn’t be doing it, but it kind of bothers me we have to make money off our public places,” he said, stressing that was his opinion and not that of other county officials.
On the negative side, it seems like everything is getting overly commercialized, Dickson said. The rest areas should be about providing the important service of letting drivers take a breath and stretch their legs while traveling.
What’s next? he asked rhetorically. Will the insurance company get to set up stands at the rest areas to sell their policies?
But Dickson also acknowledged that the corporate sponsorship beat the alternative.
(The Lambsburg rest area was never on Kaine’s list of welcome centers to close.)
“Is it better to do this than to close them? Yes,” he said.