WASHINGTON – For more than half a century, old-fashioned, no-frills highway rest stops have welcomed motorists looking for a break from the road, a bathroom or a picnic table where they can eat lunch.
But in some states, these roadside areas are disappearing.
Cash-strapped transportation agencies are shuttering the old ones to save money, or because they don’t attract enough traffic or are in such bad shape that renovating them is too costly. Or, the stops have been overtaken by tourist information centers, service plazas that take in revenue from gasoline and food sales, or commercial strips off interstate exits.
Florida, Michigan, Ohio and South Dakota are among the states that have closed traditional rest stops in the past two years. And a battle is brewing in Connecticut over shutting down all seven stops on its interstate highways to save money.
But advocates of maintaining traditional rest areas say even if motorists are offered flashier options for pit stops, the ones that sprung up as highways did are still needed for driver safety and convenience. Some view them as a tranquil, environmentally friendly alternative to crowded service plazas and commercial strips.
“Shutting them down would be the end of an era,” said Joanna Dowling, a historian who researches rest areas and runs the website RestAreaHistory.org. “Rest areas take you away from the road and the hectic-ness of travel and immerse you in the natural landscape.”
Some of the old rest areas are rustic and offer just the basics — two toilets, water fountains, a parking area and picnic tables. Others have larger bathrooms, vending machines, dog walk areas and a desk staffed by state workers who hand out maps and other tourist information.
But unlike service plazas, rest areas on federal interstate highways are prohibited from selling gasoline or food other than from vending machines, the proceeds of which traditionally go to people who are visually impaired. State transportation departments run the rest areas and are responsible for cleaning and maintaining them. That can take a chunk of their budget, depending on staffing and amenities, officials say.
In Florida, for example, the Department of Transportation tore down a traditional highway rest area on a local road off I-75 in Punta Gorda in 2015 because it didn’t get much use, agency spokesman Zac Burch said. Travelers were choosing instead to pull over at a truck stop, gasoline station and fast food chains off nearby exits.
Getting rid of the rest area saved an estimated $300,000 a year in maintenance costs, and the state probably will sell most of the 20-acre site, Burch said. The department also built a new, fancier rest area the year before about 100 miles away on I-75 and is constructing another on the opposite side of the road.
But groups that represent motorists and truckers say shuttering rest areas is a disservice to drivers — and a safety concern.
“To us, this is more than just a restroom break and snack,” said Rich Romer, AAA’s state relations manager. “It’s a safety issue because of drowsiness. Rest stops are one of the many tools to keep motorists safe and help them arrive at their destination alive.”
Highway rest areas are critical for truck drivers’ safety and their ability to comply with a federal law limiting the number of hours they can drive without rest, said Darrin Roth, spokesman for the American Trucking Associations, a trucking industry trade group.