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No rest for the weary as rest areas close

Some states claim rest areas are no longer necessary with the growth of fast food restaurants, gas stations and other facilities at interstate interchanges.
Image:Closed rest stop
Many rest areas around the country have been shuttered due to budget cuts.Steve Helber / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

That old adage “No rest for the weary” could have been coined with Mark and Barbara Van Art in mind.

Driving from their home in Glendora, N.J., to North Carolina, the Van Arts wanted to stop at a rest area on Interstate 85 in Virginia, but it was closed because of state budget cuts. Exiting the highway, they headed for a fast food restaurant — only to discover that it was the same one they had stopped at during an earlier trip and found dirty. It was back to the highway in search of a rest area.

“Rest areas are definitely cleaner,” Barbara Van Art said, as they stood by their car and talked at the North Carolina Welcome Center, near the border with Virginia.

But rest areas may also be harder to find than in the past.

Several states have shuttered rest areas because of financial woes. Some say they're no longer necessary with the growth of fast food restaurants, gas stations and other facilities at interstate interchanges.

Try telling that to a family with a crying child who has to go the bathroom. Or to a driver who feels drowsy. Or to a dog owner whose pet needs to be walked.

“In a way, rest areas are something that have been taken for granted and are just there,” said Joanna Dowling, a cultural historian who researches rest areas and has a Web site called “They have become this natural essential part of American travel.”

And when they're closed, people take notice.

This summer, Georgia closed two rest areas on Interstate 85 not too far from Atlanta. The state is considering whether to shutter others, or cut back hours of operation.

“We've just got significant budget deficits and are trying to find ways to save money,” said David Spears, press secretary for the Georgia Department of Transportation. The annual savings: $300,000 for each closed rest area, he said.

Spears said the growth of private businesses in urban areas have made rest areas somewhat duplicative. “Certainly in rural parts of the state, there's still a need for them,” he said.

Georgia is not alone in looking at rest areas for potential cost savings.

In October, the Arizona Department of Transportation closed 13 rest areas, citing a $100 million budget shortfall.

Vermont officials estimate that closing four interstate highway rest areas will save about $1 million.

Virginia closed 19 of its 42 rest areas. State officials estimate that it costs about $500,000 to operate each.

“From a traffic safety standpoint, we are concerned about it,” said John Townsend, manager of public relations for AAA's Mid-Atlantic Club.

Virginia's Republican Gov.-elect Bob McDonnell pledged during his campaign to reopen the rest stops within 90 days of taking office.

Townsend said 20 percent of crashes and 12 percent of all near-crashes are caused by drowsy drivers. Rest areas on the highway make it easy for drivers to stop and rest.

That's why they were created in the first place.

The earliest form of roadside parks for weary travelers appeared in the 1920s. Before long, picnic tables and barbecue grills were added, and sometimes toilets, Dowling said. The rest areas travelers are familiar with today came into being after the 1956 creation of the Interstate Highway System, which had limited on-off access. The first standardized guidelines for rest areas covering such things as toilet facilities and potable water were released two years later.

States have the responsibility for creating and maintaining rest areas.

David Cattelino, publisher of the Interstate Rest Area Guide, estimates that there are between 1,500 and 2,000 rest areas on American roads, depending on how you define them. Most will have rest rooms, perhaps a picnic table or a place to walk the dog.

“They probably started out as more essential because there was no place else to stop,” Dowling said. “Now some people think of them as less essential because there's so much more commercial development at interchanges.”

That raises some interesting issues, she said. Should, for example, a fast food restaurant or other commercial for-profit venture have the responsibility of providing public toilets? What about issues of safety or congestion that might be created by people exiting the highway to look for a place to stop?

Some toll roads have commercial, for-profit rest stops. So why not interstate highways?

Federal law says “the state will not permit automotive service stations or other commercial establishments for serving motor vehicle users to be constructed or located on the rights-of way-of the Interstate System.” Proceeds from the vending machines at the interstate rest areas must go to non-profit organizations.

But that law does not apply to toll roads, many of which already existed when the interstate system was created and were subsequently incorporated into it.

“They allowed for businesses to provide these services so you wouldn't have to pay to get off the road and then back on,” Dowling said.

As a result, you can see for-profit rest areas filled with gas stations and fast food restaurants on the toll part of I-95 in Maryland, for example, but a state-run one with no commercial services on the part of the road that's free to travel.

The Federal Highway Administration, on its Web site, offers this response to those interested in setting up a business at an interstate rest area: “Safety rest areas are intended to serve motorists by allowing them to take a short break, use the rest rooms, shake off drowsiness, and then move on. The absence of commercial services (except for vending machines) means motorists can stop without any pressure to make purchases. For food, gasoline, lodging, and other commercial services, motorists can leave the highway and return to it without a toll charge.”

Some states are looking at the possibility of seeking a waiver that would allow them to privatize operation of rest areas as a way to keep them going.

All the news about rest areas isn't about them closing.

Some states are using economic stimulus funds to update or rebuild them.

In California, for example, the Shandon Roadside Rest Area on Highway 46 in San Luis Obispo County will be rebuilt. The existing facility, the state Department of Transportation said in a news release, “no longer adequately meets the needs of its over 1.5 million annual users. This facility has become outdated, inefficient and costly to maintain.”

The updated facility will include new buildings and restrooms and comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. There will be areas for picnics and for pets.

But there's one catch.

The facility will be closed for about a year while the work is being done.