Looking for food along Virginia highways? Best wishes.

Travis Fain
Contact Reportertfain@dailypress.com
Looking for food along Virginia highways? Better not be hungry.

In Virginia, the restaurants and gas stations advertised on signs along the interstate can be up to 3 miles away from the exit.

In Georgia, it's two miles. I know this and so, so much more about interstate "logo signs" because I used to live in Georgia. And the minute I moved to Virginia it was like I lost all ability to find McDonald's.

I am not alone, which we'll get to in less time than it takes to navigate exit 250A off Interstate 64. Legend holds there is a McDonald's here.

This is also the Fort Eustis exit, which I'm certain of because, when I reached the front gate with no hamburgers in sight, I had to ask myself how likely it was that Big Macs required security clearance.

Turns out I'd missed the "food 2nd right" sign somewhere between crossing a set of railroad tracks and the Newport News city reservoir.. That second right loops you around another exit ramp and onto Warwick Boulevard. From there it's just a straight shot through forever before you see McDonald's on your left.

I pulled in next to an SUV. It was like a maze to get here, I said.

"Thank you," Rene Mulnix answered. "We just went through that."

"I don't mind driving 5 miles away," she said. "But I want to know it's 5 miles away."

That sort of information comes after — I repeat, after — you take the exit ramp. Virginia Department of Transportation protocols say there should be a sign telling you to take a right or left at the end of that ramp, and giving distances to each restaurant, gas station, hotel or other destination.

Mulnix was exaggerating. This McDonald's is only 2.5 miles from the interchange. I guess it says something about our fast-food world that 2.5 miles is too far to go for a hamburger, but then again, these are fast-food restaurants.

Which brings me to the Chick-fil-A "at" exit 234-A. This is the Great Wolf Lodge interchange on I-64, but the only thing really in evidence as you leave the interstate is a Toyota Scion dealership.

If you pay attention, you can absolutely find the Chick-fil-A here without GPS or a team of blood hounds. It's near a Home Depot, and you only have to exit the highway — excuse me, highways — twice to reach it.

There's a small VDOT sign telling you to turn, just as there's supposed to be. But I was repeatedly unable to accomplish this, so I got interested in Virginia's logo sign rules.

Richard Saslaw seemed like a potential expert. The Democratic leader of the state Senate, Saslaw owns a number of gas stations and said he's never heard a complaint from folks trying to find them.

But there is this one exit, he said.

Off I-64.

Near Williamsburg. He was looking for a fast-food restaurant.

"I found that place 10 minutes later," Saslaw said. "I thought I was in North Carolina."

People, I am not alone.

The VDOT folks were very helpful. Within four days they sent me a picture of one reworked exit sign for that McDonalds and promised to upgrade my old friend "food 2nd right." They noted that the packed-in nature of the roads around both of my example exits make it inherently difficult to give directions there.

Agreed. I tell you though, I've had trouble finding things all around the state. And since everyone likes to hear how we used to do it back home: I never had this problem in Georgia.

Do people not like convenience here?

The 3-mile radius Virginia allows for restaurants and gas stations may not seem much different from the 2 miles allowed in Georgia. But remember your A=πr2 — the formula for the area of a circle.

As the crow files, 3 miles means a search area of 28 square miles. With a 2-mile radius, it's 12.5.

Virginia isn't out of line on this, though. Three miles is the general rule in Kentucky, and in West Virginia. Maryland allows restaurants to be up to 3 miles away, though gas stations need to be a mile or less. North Carolina — where I've also lived — is like Georgia: Two miles for both.

Virginia's logo sign program was privatized back in 1995, and its cousin programs — such as "tourist-oriented directional signing" — in 2004. Virginia Logos LLC has the contract, and it's part of Interstate Logos LLC, which handles sign programs in 23 states.

These are the blue and brown signs, primarily. The Virginia Department of Transportation contracts out separately for the big green interstate signs, and makes other common road signs at its own shop in Colonial Heights.

The programs managed by Virginia Logos generate about $6 million a year, mostly in sign costs, maintenance fees and annual fees charged to restaurants, hotels and other businesses. State agencies also pay for signs announcing state parks, college campuses, Department of Motor Vehicles locations and other places.

At least 67 percent of the annual budget goes to Virginia Logos, VDOT said, and the department keeps the rest. VDOT doesn't know how much Virginia Logos makes in profit, which isn't unusual for state contracts. Businesses guard that information, lest competitors undercut them on a later bid.

VDOT can't say definitively whether privatization has saved money. The costs were spread over four separate programs before, making comparisons difficult. But it's self-sufficient now, Traffic Engineering Division Manager Dee Audet said, and it wasn't before.

Privatization also shifted a boatload of business sign questions from local VDOT staffers to the company, which was a primary goal when the state made the change.

Virginia Logos subcontracts to have the signs made, then checks them regularly for things such as reflectivity and "bolt torque." Why not just have prisoners make them? Rules. The federal "Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways" is not light reading.

"It's a very specialized type of fabrication," said Directional and Service Signage Program Manager Richard Burgess. "It's not assembly line."

I just want to note here: I couldn't find a Chick-fil-A, and instead of using the GPS in my phone, I talked to a man whose title is "directional and service signage program manager."

Burgess said VDOT doesn't get a lot of complaints about things being hard to find, but he was sympathetic.

The handful of state agencies that buy signs from Virginia Logos declared themselves mostly satisfied with the company's work. The signs aren't cheap, spokes people said, but the company is responsive.

Still, the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation often hears complaints about a lack of signage leading people to state parks. It budgeted about $25,000 for such signs this year, spokesman Jim Meisner Jr. said. It spent $5,506 last year for a single 10-foot-wide sign on the interstate, he said, so the money goes fast.

I also called the Virginia Hospitality and Travel Association to ask how happy its members are with the program. Spokesman Seth Petersen declined to talk about it.

"We don't have any input to provide to this story at this point in time," he said.

Which perhaps is telling.

Fain can be reached by phone at 757-525-1759.

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