[This was posted in the Wall Street Journal this week. I'm glad to see that Texas is bucking the trend. Its mighty hard to pull into a McDonald's with a 30' Airstream!]
RIP: budget woes spell doom for roadside rest stops
by Mike Esterl
As millions of Americans take to the road for the holiday weekend, a humble highway fixture is under attack.
Later this month, cash-strapped Virginia plans to barricade entrances and switch off the plumbing and electricity at nearly half its highway rest areas. Other states also are lowering budgetary axes on the public pit stops that have lined the interstate highway system since its creation in 1956
But rest stops aren't going quietly.
Pit Stops in America's South
Truckers, blind merchants and a dogged historian are fighting to preserve them. If the battle is lost, every long-distance motorist will need "a strong rear end and a strong bladder" to hit the road, warns John Townsend, an official with the American Automobile Association in Washington.
There are about 2,500 rest areas along the interstates. State governments build and maintain them. Most have remained steadfastly utilitarian: a parking lot, a simple building with toilets, a few picnic benches, and maybe some vending machines. Because many of the interstates bypassed cities and towns, travelers often had no other options when they needed to pull off the road.
But over the years, big clusters of gas stations, fast-food outlets and motels have sprung up just off interstate exits in all but the most remote parts of the country. A national directory lists nearly 2,500 privately owned truck stops, each with at least 10 parking spaces and two showers. Even Wal-Mart Stores
Inc. -- which permits overnight stays by recreational vehicles at most of its more than 4,000 locations -- offers a popular alternative to old-fashioned rest areas.
A growing number of states have come to see rest areas as obsolete. Rather than spend the money on maintenance and repairs, states began closing them.
Louisiana has closed 24 of its 34 rest areas since 2000, four of them last year. Maine, Vermont and Colorado have recently announced plans to shutter more rest areas because of cash constraints. Rhode Island, Tennessee, Arizona and others are thinking of doing likewise.
Virginia, which is moving the most aggressively, says it can save $9 million a year by closing 19 rest areas. Closures in many states are "an imminent threat," says Kevan Worley, the president of the National Association of Blind Merchants. Under a decades-old federal law that gives priority to blind businesses, 600 of the association's members stock rest-area vending machines.
One hurdle for defenders of rest stops: The facilities don't exactly inspire nostalgia. Poets and novelists have spilled far less ink on rest stops than on diners, motels and other attractions that dotted older highways such as Route 66 before the interstates put many of them out of business. When rest areas have made the news in recent years, it was often because of police sex stings.
Historians largely have held their noses, even as some of the more ambitious rest areas incorporated tepees, adobe huts, windmills and oil rigs into their designs. "People don't see it as an academic thing because it's a bathroom," says Joanna Dowling, a historical consultant in Chicago who broke new ground in 2007 with a master's thesis on the development of interstate rest areas. Last year she launched a Web site for buffs, www.restareahistory.org
Rest-area defenders are finding their voice. Virginia's plan to shut down rest areas dominated "60% to 70%" of the discussions at recent public meetings even though the measure represented a tiny part of the $2.6 billion in proposed cuts to the state transport budget, says Jeffrey Caldwell, a state transportation department spokesman. "We figured it would be a topic of discussion. I'm not sure we figured it would be the biggest topic," he says.
The American Trucking Associations opposed the closures, arguing that privately operated truck stops off highway exits wouldn't be able to handle the traffic. The National Association of Blind Merchants also weighed in, as did AAA, the automobile club. AAA points to data showing that a fifth of car crashes on highways involve drowsy drivers and warns that percentage could rise if rest areas disappear.
Virginia has scaled back its plan, closing just 19 of its 42 rest areas this summer instead of the 25 it had planned. It is keeping them open until after the busy Fourth of July weekend.
Virginia officials say they'd prefer to turn rest areas over to private operators rather than close them. But federal law prohibits franchising out rest stops to private operators if the stops are directly on an interstate highway. Federal law would have to be changed, but that seems unlikely to happen soon, the officials say: Businesses that have invested heavily in restaurants and other facilities off the interstates would be likely to resist.
Still, the push-back is giving some states pause. New Hampshire was set to shutter some of its rest areas but shelved the plan a few weeks ago amid local opposition. That's despite the fact that "you can drive through the state in an hour and a half," says Bill Boynton, a state transportation department spokesman.
A few states, particularly those still boasting wide-open spaces, are bucking the trend and have spent money on a new generation of rest-area projects. Texas shut down about half a dozen older rest areas but opened two new ones in December featuring interactive kiosks, playgrounds, surveillance cameras and a police outpost. All of the state's close to 100 rest areas have been outfitted with wireless Internet hot spots in recent years. "Rest areas are just as necessary as they ever were," says Andrew Keith, a program manager at the Texas department of transportation.
Iowa has been replacing rest areas with new ones that offer even more bells and whistles. One has a gift shop in a big red barn that sells Norwegian CDs because of all the Norwegians thereabouts, and socks made of corn fiber.
There is one old rest area that appears safe: a circular building, put up in 1964
on Interstate 64, near Winchester, Ky., featuring a roof with multiple triangular folds. It was placed under the umbrella of the National Historic Preservation Act when the interstate system turned 50 in 2006.
The foundation is starting to come apart, and the roof is separating. State engineers are struggling with how to make the bathrooms wheelchair-accessible.
David Cornett, a roadside manager in the Kentucky transportation office, says it would be cheaper and easier to just knock the building down.