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.
(Brandon Reese/For The Washington Post)
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.”