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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Now, another victim of the economic downturn: the interstate highway rest stop. This week, Virginia shut down about half its rest areas, hoping to save $9 million a year. Officials are trying to close a $2 billion budget shortfall and they're not sure if those rest areas will ever reopen. Several other states are doing the same thing.

NPR's Adam Hochberg reports.

ADAM HOCHBERG: Admittedly, highway rest areas aren't likely to be the most memorable things you'll see along America's interstates. Most are little more than places to pull off the road, use the restroom, maybe take a short walk or buy a vending machine candy bar. But each of these nondescript expanses of grass and asphalt can attract thousands of daily visitors and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to run. And that's an expense Virginia officials say they no longer can afford.

Mr. JEFF CALDWELL (Virginia Department of Transportation): 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.

HOCHBERG: That's Jeff Caldwell of the Virginia Transportation Department. We met him at a rest area along Interstate 85 that's now more restful than ever. The state this week shut down this facility and by the end of the summer will have closed 18 others like it.

Mr. CALDWELL: We have about 40 million visitors a year to our rest areas. That's a lot of folks needing things like toilet paper, paper towels, etc. So, we just could not look at the 42 rest areas that we were operating and not see an opportunity to cut back to some degree and save some money there.

(Soundbite of machine)

Unidentified Man: Well, you can (unintelligible) sign down, and put the closed sign up there.

HOCHBERG: At Virginia's doomed rest areas, crews this week mounted large, black and white closed signs, placarding over the blue and white ones that used to welcome motorists to stop. Even after these closures, Caldwell stresses Virginia still has 23 rest areas remaining and it's expanding truck parking and other accommodations at those. But that doesn't please critics, who say the state's roads now are less safe. Lon Anderson is with the AAA Motor Club.

Mr. LON ANDERSON (AAA Motor Club): Remember that drowsy driving is a major threat to your highway safety. And 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.

HOCHBERG: AAA notes with concern that a handful of other states also have begun eliminating rest areas to save money. Maine and Colorado have each closed two. Vermont has de-commissioned four and plans to demolish the buildings. Those permanent closings are especially distressing to Joanna Dowling, a historical consultant and perhaps America's only scholar of rest-area history. She mourns what she considers to be a significant loss to the cultural landscape.

Ms. JOANNA DOWLING (Historical Consultant): I think we're talking about mid-20th century transportation heritage. You know, 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, you know. These are, you know, somewhat maybe uniquely American experiences and what we're losing is more than just roadside bathrooms.

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

(Soundbite of truck starting)

HOCHBERG: Yesterday, at Virginia's only I-85 rest area that remained open, motorists said they'll likely end up stopping more at businesses near the exits, as the non-commercial state facilities become harder to find. But Ronald Newlin(ph), on vacation with his family from Mississippi, wasn't happy about it.

Mr. RONALD NEWLIN: We try to go to rest areas because they're a lot cleaner than your truck stops and your gas stations and places like that, you know. So yeah, it will really affect our lives, you know.

HOCHBERG: Truck driver Jason Rife(ph), says his life also will be affected, almost everyday. Like many truckers, he often pulls off at rest areas and sleeps in his cab. Now he says he may have to find other places to get his legally required rest.

Mr. JASON RIFE (Truck Driver): Most likely, we'll be parking in unsafe spots to sleep for the night.

HOCHBERG: Where would that be - an unsafe spot?

Mr. RIFE: Exit ramps, stuff like that.

HOCHBERG: You mean, you're going to sleep and you'll just pull off on a ramp?

Mr. RIFE: I guess you have to.

HOCHBERG: Virginia officials say there's no timetable to reopen the rest areas. But, groups like the AAA say they'll continue to apply pressure and there's been 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.

Adam Hochberg, NPR News.

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