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March 08, 2006

"Highway Service Areas"

Most of us don’t think twice about the decrepit service areas on I-95 and the Merritt Parkway. Their nasty fast food and over-priced gas are best avoided by knowing locals. But a major study is underway by CDOT to rehabilitate these service and rest areas, and they want your views.

I recently attended a focus group which examined the shortcomings of the 31 facilities, most of them in southwest Connecticut. The complaints I heard echo commuters’ gripes about Metro-North: facilities are too old, the bathrooms are dirty and there’s not enough parking.

And what kind of first impression of our fair state do these 1950’s eyesores (built to double as bomb-shelters) give to tourists, now the fastest growing sector of the state’s economy? Even the NY Thruway seems more inviting.

And what about the truckers who ply our interstates and need to take a break? A 2001 CDOT study showed there are 1,200 truckers who must park roadside at night, even on I-95, because there’s no place else … and do so with the complicity of the State Police.

What’s the impact of these service areas on the towns that “host” them?

Darien, which hosts the two busiest rest areas in the Northeast (and the most profitable McDonald’s franchise in the US!) on I-95, and two smaller service areas on the Merritt Parkway, is a case in point.

Police say the Darien I-95 service areas are the town’s crime hot-spots. When the volunteer EMS unit “Post 53” answers a nighttime call at the service areas, they must have a police escort. Neighbors report prostitution and drug needles along the small fence surrounding the rest area… not to mention the environmental impact of run-off into neighboring streams or the air pollution from idling trucks’ refrigeration units (again made possible because State troopers look the other way).

There’s gotta be a better way. And a few ideas that came out of this CDOT sponsored study might give us all some hope.

Like the idea to use I-95 air rights to build a mall-style service area above the highway with parking on either side. Newly designed service areas would have better food, trained greeters to guide tourists to the local sights, maybe even WiFi access, weather and traffic information. Some even suggested farmers markets and solar-powered plug-ins for parked trucks. Or on the Merritt, where service areas are in the National Register of Historic Places and cannot be changed, how about picnic tables and dog-walks?

There will be public meetings on all these plans in the coming months. But you can review what’s being discussed and chime in with your ideas now at www.ctrestareas.org . While CDOT admits it only has funding for the study and may never implement its suggestions, maybe we should err on the side of optimism and give them a few ideas.
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JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 15 years. He is Vice Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct . For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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