“Connecticut sucks.” We’re used to hearing that sort of sentiment from a business community weary of high taxes and excessive regulation or from young people who think the state is boring.
But these words came from a traveler from Indiana who was disgusted to learn that the Connecticut Welcome Center in Willington is now closed for all but seven hours a day. In the off hours, motorists are free to use the portable toilets, which by most accounts stink to high heaven and will be like smelly walk-in freezers once the winter sets in.
In its infinite wisdom, the state Department of Transportation recently announced similar cutbacks in hours at seven rest areas on Interstates 95, 91 and 84. The action is expected to save the state about $2 million per year and will play a very small role in combatting our perpetual budget crisis.
Being a denizen of the northwest Connecticut wilderness, I don’t travel the state’s interstate highways as often as I used to and so knew nothing of the closures until I ran across Jon Lender’s piece last week in The Courant.
Lender got an earful from travelers who were appalled that a) the Willington rest area building was closed and b) that the portable replacement potties were in deplorable condition. In some cases they had no lights and no toilet paper. The toilets themselves were “almost filled to the brim . . . with you-know-what,” the man from the Hoosier State told Lender. Lender observed that motorists who used the portables went in and emerged “in about as much time as you can hold your breath.”
There are similar closures and hours restrictions at rest areas in Southington, Wallingford, Middletown, North Stonington, and Danbury. The changes do not affect the state’s 23 service plazas on I-95, I-395 and the Merritt and Wilbur Cross parkways. That’s probably because the plazas have restaurants, gasoline, rest rooms and convenience stores. In other words, they generate revenue. Whereas rest areas, by contrast, only offer restrooms, along with items like Snickers, Doritos and Red Bull in vending machines. Slim margins, indeed.
Rest areas have been part of the highway landscape at least since the interstate highway system was created in 1956. Two phenomena have contributed to their reduction in numbers over the last 20 years or so. The proliferation of full-service commercial plazas has reduced the need for rest areas in all but the most remote areas of the country. And in a state like Connecticut, sandwiched between the Boston-New York megalopolis, there simply aren’t many truly remote areas anymore.
And of course, when budgets get tight, rest areas are easy targets — both because they’re something of a luxury but also because they’re highly visible. When government officials are compelled to look for savings, they love going after departments that the public cherishes. After all, we all notice when parks are closed and we feel bad when veterans’ memorials are shuttered, as the federal government did in 2013.
But who among us would even notice if an anonymous bureaucrat toiling in the basement of an obscure government office building was sent packing? Closing popular destinations increases public pressure on lawmakers to resolve their differences and restore funding for the rest of the government’s business.
Another reason rest areas have been closed is because some of them have become meccas for anonymous sex or, in some cases, places where sexual predators gathered to molest adults and young people alike.
The cutbacks in hours and the installation of the putrid port-a-potties at the seven state welcome areas came under sharp criticism from The Hartford Courant, which worried in a recent editorial that the “move may save the state money, but it could come at the cost of tourism and image,” while making Connecticut “better known for its effluence than its affluence.”
Exactly. This is one case where saving money could cost the state. Motorists passing through Connecticut might decide against vacationing here if they have an unpleasant experience. They might even conclude, as The Courant suggests, that the state is a stinking mess — which is pretty much the situation at the Capitol.
The best solution would be to turn the rest areas over to private contractors that could surely run them more frugally, though state employee unions would surely object. Or better yet, turn the areas into money-makers or opportunities for consolidation. One rest area I often pass by on I-90 in Schodak, N.Y., was closed several years ago but will reopen as a combination rest area and truck inspection station.
It would be great if the rest areas could become fully commercialized one-stop facilities to serve the needs of travelers, but Congress would have to take legislative action to end a ban on commercializing rest areas on interstate highways built after 1960. Since that act was passed in order to protect restaurants and gas stations located just off the exits of what was then a growing interstate system, it’s unlikely to be repealed. Rent-seekers are rarely turned away.
So next time you take a road trip, plan your stops strategically. You never know when your favorite sandbox will vanish.