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May 28, 2007

Highway Service Areas Revisited

With warmer weather comes the annual cry… “road trip!”

Now, 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 study is underway by CDOT to rehabilitate these service and rest areas, and, hey… there’s hope for the future!

Last year I attended a focus group that examined the shortcomings of the 31 rest 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.

Aside from the sticker-shock over gas prices, what kind of first impression of our fair state do these 1950’s eyesores (built, I was told, to double as bomb-shelters) give to tourists, now the fastest growing sector of the state’s economy?

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?

Review what’s being discussed and chime in with your ideas now at http://www.ctrestareas.org/ . CDOT admits it only has funding for the study and may never implement its suggestions, but in your travels this spring and summer maybe you’ll come across some fresh ideas on how to improve these important motorist services.
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JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 16 years. He is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM, but the views expressed here are only his own. Reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct .

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