Considering how fuzzy some of my vacation memories are, I’m surprised at how many details of the numerous highway rest areas I’ve visited I can still recall. That doesn’t shock Joanna Dowling, a historian who created the Web site www.restareahistory.org.
“I have a very strong memory of a rest area that we would stop at as kids,” she said. The Northern California stop in Weed, near Mount Shasta, had interpretive panels explaining the geology of the volcano, she said. Reading them became something of a tradition.
If you’re one of the tens of millions of travelers expected to hit the road for Thanksgiving, you’ll probably need to take a break at some point, and chances are that you’ll take it at one of the country’s ubiquitous highway rest areas. Occasionally maligned as dirty magnets of crime and other illicit behavior (see: “There’s Something About Mary”), the stops are evolving from small, flypaper-plastered restrooms into airy, high-tech travel plazas and welcome centers.
Some are tricked-out enough to become attractions in their own right. Let’s detour to just south of Cheyenne, Wyo., where a new $16 million welcome center on Interstate 25 opened to drivers at the end of September.
The 27,000-square-foot building hosts a variety of exhibits representing every part of the state. There’s a re-creation of a dinosaur dig site, complete with the pinging of metallic tools and audio of researchers talking about their finds.
Another popular feature is the replica of Butch Cassidy’s jail cell, said Shannon Stanfill, visitor services manager for the Wyoming Office of Tourism. Road-trippers can test their mettle by trying to escape from the pokey. “Even our retirees that are coming through, they are kids at heart,” Stanfill said. “They want to bust out of jail, and they want pictures with Butch Cassidy.”
Is it a wonder that travelers ever make it to their destination at all?
End of the road
The Wyoming welcome center and other 21st-century highway rest stops have come a long way since their rustic predecessors. There’s some debate about where the first such facility sprang up, but Dowling said that a likely candidate is a roadside picnic area in Michigan. The story goes that in the late 1920s, an engineer dismayed at the sight of families having meals next to the road started building picnic tables to give them a safe place to sit.
In the late 1940s, Dowling said, states began to establish roadside parks. “Very often there were not toilets or running water,” she said. The creation of the interstate system in 1956 led to the proliferation of “safety rest areas” in the roads’ right-of-way.
Developing the areas, however, was left to the states, which began to see the outposts as opportunities to make a positive, even educational, impression on travelers. Case in point: Florida. The Sunshine State greets road warriors at its welcome centers with a glass of citrus juice. The free OJ was a perennial highlight of our numerous long drives to Disney World.
States built many rest areas in the 1960s and 1970s. Now a lot of those structures have reached the end of their useful lives.
Sadly for me, the 48-year-old Maryland House is one of them. My family stopped there for the last time in June on the way to my cousin’s wedding. The Maryland Transportation Authority (MDTA) recently entered into an agreement with Areas USA to tear down and rebuild the Maryland House and its nearby sibling, the Chesapeake House. The Delaware Department of Transportation similarly worked with longtime partner HMSHost to rebuild the Delaware Welcome Center Travel Plaza on I-95 near Wilmington. The new facility opened in 2010.
The Maryland House closed in September, with a new building scheduled to open in December 2013, at which time the Chesapeake House, now 36 years old, will close. The new Chesapeake House should debut in September 2014.
Both facilities “had become worn down and somewhat functionally obsolete for some time now,” said MDTA executive secretary Harold Bartlett. To my sentimental relief, he said that the MDTA had decided to salvage and preserve the Maryland House’s murals, though they won’t be back in the new building.
The public-private partnership between Areas and the state calls for the company to build and manage the facilities while sharing revenue with Maryland.
That revenue will come from gas stations and food vendors. At the Maryland House, Bartlett said, travelers can expect to grab food from Wendy’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, Phillips Seafood, Nathan’s Famous, Jerry’s Subs & Pizza, Carvel, Auntie Anne’s and Currito. Wendy’s, Earl of Sandwich, Pizza Hut, KFC, Caribou Coffee and Wetzel’s Pretzels will be options at the Chesapeake House.
Commerce and cool stuff
The right to offer such commercial outlets is the exception rather than the rule. Federal regulations from the early years of the interstate system prohibit commercial activities on the interstate right-of-way. Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland are among the states that have been allowed to get around the rule, because their toll roads and privately run sites predated the law or because they were granted other exemptions.
The commercial ban was intended to prevent monopolies for services and to ensure that travelers didn’t feel pressured to buy things, according to the Federal Highway Administration. Efforts to move toward privatization have met with resistance from the National Association of Truck Stop Operators and other business owners who fear that commercialized rest areas on the interstate would draw travelers away from their establishments off the highway exits.
Vending machines don’t fall under the commercial ban. Eight sites in Virginia now offer so-called “enhanced vending” with machines doling out items such as sandwiches and fruit, according to Martin Krebs, the Virginia Department of Transportation’s program manager for safety rest areas. VDOT has also equipped all the state’s rest areas with cashless beverage vending machines: No need to root under the car seat for change.
On the Pennsylvania Turnpike, options go beyond fast food and prefab comestibles. From early spring to late fall, farmers markets operate at the New Stanton, Allentown and Sideling Hill service plazas.
Also in the good-to-know category, states continue to add wireless Internet to rest areas. The new service plazas in Maryland will have free WiFi, joining other states, such as Iowa and North Dakota, in helping travelers stay connected. Additional tech-centric features include real-time traffic displays and touch-screen tourism information kiosks in Virginia. And while Mom and Dad attend to those boring things, kids can burn their energy on playgrounds, far from the germy ball pits of fast-food restaurants.
That’s not to say that there aren’t amusing diversions for travelers of all ages. As part of its well-known “Virginia is for lovers” campaign, the Virginia Tourism Corporation installed giant signs spelling LOVE at two of the commonwealth’s welcome centers. On a recent trip to Virginia Beach, I saw a steady stream of travelers posing for pictures in front of one of the installations. One father-son pair balanced a camera on the hood of their car. Even I couldn’t resist taking a quick smartphone snapshot.
All this is taking place in more facilities designed to be eco-friendly. Several of the rebuilt Virginia rest stops have earned LEED certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. The facility on I-81 north of Winchester has a geothermal heat pump system. VDOT sourced 50 percent of the building materials from within 500 miles; the welcome center on I-95 south near Fredericksburg boasts a local-materials total of 40 percent. Other rest areas around the country have green roofs. Some in California, Wyoming and Oregon use solar panels, and Missouri has installed two wind turbines at a welcome center on I-44.
The stops go on
The new generation of features and amenities can sound too good to be true, given the economic difficulties many states have encountered over the past few years. Most famously in Virginia, then-Gov. Timothy M. Kaine ordered 19 highway rest stops closed in 2009. His successor, Robert F. McDonnell, reopened them the next year. Consequently, my guilt-driven purchases of chewing gum at Sheetz took a nosedive.
“Rest stops to the traveling public are a very valuable commodity,” said Lon Anderson, the managing director of public and government relations for AAA Mid-Atlantic. The group helped organize opposition to the closings, which made their way into the 2009 gubernatorial campaign.
“I believe that the strong message sent by the public in Virginia was not just heard in Virginia,” Anderson said. “I am confident that it was seen by the legislatures and governors’ offices in many states.”
Still, service reductions persist. Over the past five years, Missouri has converted eight rest areas to trucks-only parking. Colorado has shuttered five in the past three years. Arizona closed several facilities in 2009; it has since reopened all but two with major maintenance or safety problems. New York, among others, shut down a number of rest areas in 2010.
But rest areas aren’t on the verge of extinction — yet, anyway. Anderson and Dowling see too much public support.
“This is now an established part of American travel,” Dowling said.
How established? Enough so that if you happen to be traveling on the same day as someone you know, you might run into him or her at a rest area. In our years on the road, my family has encountered my grandfather and aunt, our next-door neighbor and my mom’s college roommate’s husband at various locations. You have to love the serendipity of that.
Just as comforting, though, is having a favorite place to stop, an old friend you can always count on. Maryland House 2.0, you have a lot to live up to.
Forget those ordinary, utilitarian rest areas from the 1960s and ’70s. Today’s new crop of stops aims for way more razzle-dazzle. Some highlights:
• The railroad-themed Donley County safety rest area on U.S. Route 287 in Texas, built in 2003, looks like something out of an old-time Western movie.
• At an information center opened in 2009 on Interstate 90 in northeastern Wyoming, visitors can don life vests and stand in front of a picture that makes it look like they’re on a river raft.
• The new Chesapeake House on I-95 in Maryland, scheduled to open in September 2014, will include an outdoor water feature for travelers to sit around.
• Since 1999, the Iowa Department of Transportation has partnered with local artists in its rest area replacement project. The themed facilities incorporate artwork inside and outside the buildings.
• The Conway welcome center on I-44 in Missouri opened in 2009 with a Route 66 theme. Picnic shelters resemble vintage storefronts, such as a barbershop and a diner.
• In 2009, Dominion Virginia Power installed an electric-vehicle charging station at a rest area on I-64 in New Kent.
• The Delaware Welcome Center Travel Plaza, which opened on I-95 in 2010, has an open, airy appearance that makes it look more like a mall food court than a rest area.
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