It is easy to attribute The Great Recession to the increasingly visible decision among many states to cut long-standing social services. In a good portion of the country, publicly supported interstate rest areas have lost much of their reason for being; with so many other options at the exit ramps along our many limited-access highways, it has been hard for them to compete. The average rest area may have much better maintained restrooms than the typical gas station, but food options rarely extend beyond the content of a few vending machines. Picnic areas are a nice touch, but they often rely on visitors packing their lunches and eating them at the site, as well as comfortable weather. These days, most interstate exits leading to a town of at least 5,000 will have at least a couple full service restaurants immediately after the exit ramp. And it’s impossible to recognize the offerings of gas stations without conceding that gasoline may be the most critical commodity that rest areas—outside of the occasional travel plazas on toll roads—typically lack.
Thus, a number of states, in an effort to slash the budgets of their Departments of Transportation, have begun shuttering rest areas. USA Today reported last year that Virginia has been among the most aggressive, slicing nearly half. New Hampshire and Vermont have cut quite a few. Georgia has targeted its rest areas that are close to large cities (where those same services are available in spades), as have Maryland, Michigan, and New Jersey. The aforementioned states, though, are all situated east of the Great Plains, where the distances between settlements are relatively short. However, when Arizona followed suit later in the year, closing an astounding 13 of its 18 rest areas, the action elicited particularly emotional dissent from residents, no doubt attributable to the fact that, throughout the west, the roadside towns spaced between the major cities are few and far between. A state like Arizona may be reasonably well populated, but a disproportionate number of people there call metro Phoenix or Tucson their home, while vast stretches of the Arizona back country are neither inhabited nor serviced with most infrastructure. It’s far tougher in the Mojave Desert than in Connecticut to find an exit with gas and a McDonald’s and a Subway. Truckers, in particular, depend on a secure place to pull off and rest, since many carry their cargo over several nights. Within just the past few days, Arizona’s Department of Transportation announced it was reopening five of the thirteen rest areas that it had previously closed.
This Arizona reprieve suggests that, in at least some parts of the country, the decommissioning of rest areas may manifest itself in a tug-of-war directly paralleling the periods of economic hardship. Clearly a number of states have carefully evaluated the necessity in recent years of these roadside oases—are they the sine qua non for weary travelers that they were in the past? Two bordering southern states offer the most profound contrast regarding how their governments value these once-cherished public services: Louisiana has been implementing austerity measures to its interstate travelers for quite some time, cutting more than two-thirds of its facilities, some of them as long ago as 2000. Conversely, Texas—consistently demonstrating greater resiliency to the recession than most other states—has been using its share of stimulus money to refine its inventory of rest areas. After closing a few of the older ones, the State has also built new facilities, enhancing the amenities offered in the most frequented existing structures, from children’s play zones, pet walking areas, and wireless internet access. The level of investment manifests itself at the Texas-Louisiana border along Interstate 10, near the City of Orange:
Even the most tight-fisted of states would concede that a service station at a boundary should be among the last to get cut. After all, these facilities are often the first structure a motorist encounters after crossing the state line—they aren’t necessarily mere rest areas; frequently they’re welcome centers, and they routinely refer to themselves as such, or in this case, a Travel Information Center. The air-conditioned facility includes interpretive displays, a professional travel counselor, diaper changing stations, a panoply of promotional material for tourist activities in southeast Texas, and a video theatre. Even more impressive is the facility’s back yard, which directly overlooks a vast swamp filled with bald cypress and water tupelo.
The small plaza features a display of flags that loosely encompass Texas’ history as a territory, sovereign nation, and state: the lone star flag, the US flag, flags of Mexico and Spain, and even the French coat-of-arms flag from the 18th century (the northern part of Texas was part of the Louisiana Purchase). But most significant is the Lone Star sculpture in the background of that photo.
From its position immediately to the north of I-10, visible on the right as one crosses the Texas line, this emblem almost achieves landmark status. It’s not quite big or boldly colored enough to stand out from a great distance, but the flags in the plaza puncture the sky and draw the eyes to the site, where they will immediately shift toward the approximately 30-foot sculpture—an effective piece of minimalist pop art that succinctly embodies the spirit of Texas. During my brief visit, several other visitors had their pictures taken in front of the sculpture, and the decision to bury one of the star’s five points has made it appear sturdier and more approachable as a playground feature for children, manifested in the above photo. The flags and the Lone Star sculpture harmonize to form one of the most eye-catching gateways at a state boundary; they more than compensate for the rest area/welcome center facility, which is situated far enough off the road that it would not easily stand out without a prominent fixture poised directly off the highway. The monumentality of the flag/sculpture combination also completely overpowers this far more conventional gateway sign, a little further down the road:
With all these allurements, it’s no surprise that Texas rest areas rate highly among motorists, judging from the array of comments visible online. And having such a comfortable facility right at the boundary is an excellent way of rolling out the welcome mat. But the Department of Transportation has also come under fire for what some would argue is an irresponsible use of stimulus/taxpayer money for the construction of unnecessarily lavish facilities.
Louisiana has taken an opposite approach: the state’s Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD) has virtually no remaining rest areas. The few that remain overwhelmingly sit at state border crossings, like this one on southbound I-55, at the Louisiana-Mississippi line.
It’s well maintained, and the 24-hour bathrooms (in the detached facility to the left of the arcade) are simple but clean. The grounds are small but feature elegant renditions of the amenities we have come to expect at most rest areas.
It does not have any walkable nature trails with educational displays; the rest area’s property lines are relatively small.
Though by no means a disaster, the primary landmark is less effective.
I hate to assert something as shallow as “bigger is better”, but this replica of the shape of Louisiana only stands about 7 feet tall, and while it announces the entrance to the state, it lacks the sublime monumentality of Texas’ flag and sculpture combination. It’s just not big enough to stand out. The absence of any metaphoric content to compare with a proud lone star means this sculpture/sign is semantically almost identical to the blue “Welcome to Louisiana” metal sign that preceded it 300 feet before the rest area (seen in a photo above). The redundancy of these two markers weakens their individual impact. This concrete replica of the state boundaries also sets several yards off from the entrance to the facilities, so it is not integrated into a plaza. Thus, it neither catches the eye nor attracts visitors to take their pictures in front of it when they park at the rest area.
The primary structure to this Louisiana pit stop, employing a full wrap-around portico currently popular in new housing construction throughout the South, hosts the welcome center.
It was not open at the time of this visit, but I’ve been to one in the past, and they feature at least a few of the same amenities as the Travel Information Center in Texas: free wireless in most locations (including the one pictured), maps, tourist activity guides, and trained specialists. They are also under management by the Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism (CRT).
This placard on the side of the building indicates construction in 2002, a few years after the state began closing its rest areas. Thus, the Foster administration most likely decided to cut the aging, infrequently used, low-service rest areas and consolidate the rest of the activities by building these new rest area/welcome center combos, nearly all of which lie on interstates as they cross into Louisiana boundaries. Despite the enhanced programming at these welcome centers, the cut from 34 rest areas to around 10 (depending on what you count) has surely saved significant operational costs, particularly freeing some of the DOTD’s budget as part of the staffing/programmatic burden has shifted to CRT. Among the few rest areas in Louisiana not at the boundary is the Atchafalaya Welcome Center, at Mile Mark 122 on I-10. I have visited this as well, and it has the same amenities as the welcome centers at state lines, but both directions of traffic flow are funneled to one facility through an exit ramp that passes beneath the highway; again, another device to cut operational costs.
It may appear from this essay that I am singing the praises of the Texas approach of bold and monumental. The state has decided to expand and enhance its artillery of rest areas to wow all the passers-by. But is the Texas approach really that wise? Rather than simply letting businesses take over, it would appear that the State has decided to try outdoing the private sector. The rest area on I-10 at Orange, TX is less of a visitor information center and more of a small museum, which means the State is trying to entice visitors through unique features that the private sector is unlikely to provide. But visitors will still go elsewhere when looking for food or gas—two services which it is unlikely the State could ever justify providing at taxpayers’ expense. In this country in particular, the public sector is nearly always on shaky ground when it attempts to compete with a service the private sector can provide: many Americans perceive that it would be an unnecessary intrusion on private sector territory. In fact, federal law prohibits the privatization of rest areas, based on a 1956 law that intended to protect small businesses when a limited access highway passing through potentially diverted their customer base. (Toll roads were largely exempt because they pre-dated the Interstate Highway Act, which is why the travel plazas on the Pennsylvania Turnpike etc are chock-full of national chains.) Arizona’s DOT has pushed for a change in this federal law, further distancing states from the responsibility of furnishing and maintaining rest areas. Should the federal law be repealed, Texas taxpayers could be in for a rude awakening, having used so much federal stimulus money on extravagant rest area enhancement projects.
Louisiana’s approach is clearly more modest, and it surely elicited grumbling from truckers or locals who now find they have significantly fewer options on the highways. But the State has smartly packaged its formidable cuts on rest areas through the veneer of enhanced tourism: motorists just entering the state still can enjoy 24-hour restrooms, and, during normal business hours, a welcome center committed to optimizing their visit to the state. Meanwhile, new chain restaurants, gas stations, and hotels spring up (and shut down) every day at various exits, creating an overwhelming monotony to the interstate highway traveling experience. Run-of-the-mill rest areas were just another part of that tired rhythm. Whether they’re bold, lavish, and monumental like Texas or modest, sensible, and dull like Louisiana, they reflect the widely divergent cultural attitudes toward a government service which has become almost an institution in itself—but one that clearly needs a reinvention in the wake of our increasingly cluttered transcontinental landscape.