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Towing companies clash with VDOT

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A state-sponsored program to quickly remove wrecked vehicles from Interstate 95 in Stafford County has run afoul of some local tow truck operators, who say the program unfairly competes with their business.

Hari Sripathi, regional operations director for the Virginia Department of Transportation, told a group of tow truck operators Thursday meeting in Stafford’s public safety building that he understands their concerns.

But, he said, VDOT’s job is to make sure that I–95 is safe and that traffic can keep moving. He also explained that the new program is, in part, a response to Gov. Bob McDonnell’s executive order to create programs that could be more efficient in clearing up interstate incidents.

In late May, after it appeared that crashes in the I–95 express lanes work zone had spiked, VDOT officials and state police started talking about what could be done to avoid the massive delays caused by incidents along that “critical” stretch of highway.

Preliminary results of the study led transportation officials and police to implement two new programs involving tow trucks, one in Fairfax and Prince William counties and the other in Stafford. Both programs started in mid-June.

The Stafford program involves a VDOT-owned rollback wrecker, which the department says is used to quickly move disabled or wrecked vehicles off the main lanes if possible.

Use of a state-owned wrecker has been in place for years in other areas of Virginia, Sripathi said, pointing to the Woodrow Wilson Bridge project as one example. And after studying incidents in the I–95 work zone in Stafford, VDOT concluded that a state-owned wrecker could often help clear scenes faster than private tow trucks, Sripathi said. That’s because that wrecker is operated by one of VDOT’s Safety Service Patrols, which circulate along the I–95 corridor regularly.

The drivers disputed that assertion, and tow truck operators said VDOT should include them in any such effort.

They pointed to the police-run programs in Prince William and Fairfax counties, where private tow truck operators are dispatched along with police and emergency responders in order to clear scenes quicker.

Sripathi, along with VDOT’s Mike Woods, said they have no intention of competing with the private tow truck operators in Stafford. They said if private tow trucks get to a scene first, the VDOT wrecker will back off.

They also said it would be up to state police and the Stafford Sheriff’s Office to set up a program like the ones in Northern Virginia.

Stafford Sheriff Charles Jett said his office and the state police are looking into implementing such a system, but nothing has been determined.

Sripathi said the beefed-up wrecker usage is only one way of dealing with incidents along the express lanes work zone.

“We’re looking at every option” to help avoid traffic backups on I–95, especially between Dumfries, where the current HOV lanes end, and the U.S. 17 area in Stafford, said Sripathi.

He said VDOT also is going to add more signs warning drivers, both in and ahead of the work zone. They also are posting information at rest areas.

Sripathi added that state officials will monitor the new tow truck programs and tweak or drop them altogether if they’re not helping move traffic.

Work on the express lanes project, which will add new electronically tolled lanes in the I–95 median from Garrisonville to Dumfries, started last August.

The lanes are expected to open in late 2014 or early 2015.

Scott Shenk: 540/374-5436