For Half Of Virginia Rest Areas, It's No Go

Rest Stop Sign i

Virginia Department of Transportation worker Scott Clark placards over a "rest area" sign on Interstate 85 near Alberta, Va. That rest area is one of 18 the state closed this week, and number 19 is scheduled to be shuttered in September. Adam Hochberg/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Adam Hochberg/NPR
Rest Stop Sign

Virginia Department of Transportation worker Scott Clark placards over a "rest area" sign on Interstate 85 near Alberta, Va. That rest area is one of 18 the state closed this week, and number 19 is scheduled to be shuttered in September.

Adam Hochberg/NPR

The economic downturn is taking its toll on an emblematic part of America's Interstate highway system: the roadside rest area.

This week, Virginia became the fourth state to begin shutting down rest areas to save money. Nineteen of Virginia's 42 rest areas will be closed by mid-September.

"We're having to find pots of money wherever we can identify them, and the rest areas were one area where we felt we could cut back," Virginia Department of Transportation spokesman Jeff Caldwell said.

Caldwell said each rest area costs roughly half-a-million dollars a year to operate. The closings are expected to save $9 million annually for a state budget that has experienced a $2.6 billion shortfall.

"We have about 40 million visitors a year to our rest areas. That's a lot folks needing things like toilet paper, paper towels, etc.," Caldwell said.

Even after the closings, Caldwell stressed Virginia will have 23 rest areas remaining, and the state is expanding truck parking and other accommodations at those locations. But that doesn't please critics, who have said Virginia's roads now are less safe.

"Remember that drowsy driving is a major threat to your highway safety," said Lon Andersen of the AAA Mid-Atlantic Motor Club. "It's incumbent on states to do everything they can to encourage motorists to stop frequently, to stretch their legs. When you start shuttering rest stops, you're discouraging drivers from doing what they need to do to be safe on the roads."

Virginia isn't the only state to close rest areas to save money, though its closures are the most widespread. Maine and Colorado each have closed two rest areas. Vermont has de-commissioned four and plans to demolish the buildings.

Those permanent closings are especially distressing to Joanna Dowling, a historical consultant who might be America's only scholar of rest-area history. She mourns what she considers to be a significant loss to the cultural landscape.

"I think we're talking about mid-20th century transportation heritage," Dowling said. "It's the family road trip. It's traveling through the night to get somewhere and having to sleep for three hours in your car."

"What we're losing is more than roadside bathrooms," she added.

In Virginia, where some rest areas were built 40 years ago, officials don't discount that historical loss. But they also point out that nowadays, there are more places to take breaks along the interstate — such as fast-food restaurants, gas stations and truck stops.

Many motorists in Virginia predict they will end up stopping more at those businesses near the exits, as the non-commercial state-run facilities become harder to find. But some are not happy about it.

"We try to do the rest areas because they're a lot cleaner than your truck stops and your gas stations and places like that," said Ronald Newlin of Fulton, Miss., who was passing through Virginia on a family vacation. He had stopped at a rest area near Bracey, Va. That's the only one that remains open on the Virginia section of Interstate 85.

Truck driver Jason Rife also was disappointed to learn of the closings. He said that like many truckers, he often pulls off at rest areas and sleeps in his cab. Now, he worries he may have to find other places to get his legally required rest.

"Most likely we'll be parking in unsafe spots to sleep for the night," Rife said.

Virginia officials said there is no timetable to re-open the rest areas. But groups like the AAA said they will continue to apply pressure, and there is some evidence that rest-area preservation may be a surprisingly potent political issue.

This week, both candidates in the November Virginia governor's race have promised that one of their first acts if elected will be to take down the rest-area barricades and welcome motorists back.

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