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Nice & Curious Questions

Edwin S. Clay III and Patricia Bangs


 

Branded Restrooms:

What's Next for Virginia's Rest Stops?   

 

The actress Susan Sarandon, while accepting an award in New Jersey, once quipped that she would actually like her name on one of the state’s rest areas. Anyone who has traveled the infamous New Jersey Turnpike knows this is not an idle request. The Garden State’s finest are memorialized in the names of its rest areas – Vince Lombardi, Thomas Edison, Walt Whitman, Clara Barton, etc.

 

Here in Virginia, state officials have adopted a more familiar convention for our 41 rest areas and 10 welcome centers. The oases, named for local towns and landmarks, are spread along the Commonwealth’s six interstate highways. While traveling through Virginia you’ll find the Carson Rest Area on Interstate 95 in Prince George County, the Troutville Rest Area on Interstate 81 in Botetourt County, or Jerry's Run Rest Area/Welcome Center on Interstate 64 in Alleghany County.

 

According to recent statistics gathered by the Travel Industry Association, road travelers make more than 28 million trips to or through Virginia annually. Those who sampled the Commonwealth’s public rest areas found standard amenities – restrooms, pet exercise areas, vending machines, tourist information, telephones and picnic areas. They could visit any day of the week, any hour of the day, and park for up to two hours. At each location there’s a 24-hour private security guard on duty, a spot for state trooper parking, hourly patrols, and surveillance cameras help ensure safety.

 

Rest areas in the U.S. originated in 1938 as part of the Federal-Aid Highway Act. The legislation stated, “the States, with the aid of Federal funds, may include … such sanitary and other facilities as may be deemed necessary to provide for the suitable accommodations of the public.” But it wasn’t until the Interstate Highway Act of 1956, and later the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 – a pet project of Lady Bird Johnson – that rest areas became commonplace.

 

Such oases are now such a part of the American landscape that they have spawned studies and conferences such as “Investigating the Needs and Expectations of Rest Area Users: A Critical Step in Long-Range Rest Area Planning,” (ITE Journal, July 2002) and a 1999 Rest Area Forum in Atlanta, GA, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Transportation. One author penned a popular 2001 guidebook, "Rest Areas and Welcome Centers Along U.S. Interstates," (which also lists Cracker Barrel locations, as well as discount stores such as Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club, K-Mart and Target).

 

About 15 years ago, Virginia even studied the possibility of privatizing its rest areas and welcome centers in the hopes the feds would lift a ban on commercial establishments on interstates (“Final Report: Opportunities for Privatization of Virginia’s Rest Areas and Welcome Centers,” Virginia Transportation Research Council, 1991). Originally designed to protect small town businesses along interstates, the law still stands. Groups such as the National Association of Truck Stop Owners argue that lifting the ban would shift tax revenue from localities to the state, and competition from public rest areas might result in the closing of private truck stops, which provide 90 percent of the parking for truckers. This in turn might raise safety issues such as forcing truckers to drive while drowsy, the organization argues.

 

Still, the demand for rest areas continues. Since 1991, Virginia has added 13. While some argue that rest area maintenance costs do not offer enough return on investment, the Virginia Hospitality and Travel Association sees them as a marketing opportunity. Last year, in cooperation with the Virginia Department of Transportation and the Virginia Tourism Corporation, VHTA distributed 850,000 local business brochures as part of its new Rest Area Distribution Program along I-81, I-95 and I-64. This year the association is recommending businesses provide 50,000 brochures for the I-81 and I-95 corridor rest areas and 30,000 for I-64.

 

If the federal ban on interstate commercialization is ever lifted, Virginia could borrow some ideas from other states. In Texas, the state department of transportation is accepting bids to offer free wireless Internet access at its 84 rest areas and 12 information centers (“Texas Rest Stops Set to Offer Wireless Access,” Trailer Life 65, February 2005.)

 

In Schiller Park, Illinois, a new toll road oasis offers the only Starbucks in town, attracting visitors on foot and bicycle (“Upgraded Illinois Toll Road Rest Stops Draw Attention From Nearby Towns,” Chicago Tribune, August 6, 2004).

 

The Florida Turnpike District enthusiastically branded its restrooms back in 2000, posting signs that Lysol was the cleaner of choice. The disinfectant’s parent company picked up the marketing tab (“Rest Stops: Hotbeds of Antibacterial Activity? Brandweek, September 25, 2000).

 

After all, a 2002 study found that 51 percent of those who stopped at rest areas did so to “use the toilet/change a diaper.” “Stretching and walking,” “disposing of trash,” and “using the drinking fountain,” came in next. The marketing opportunities are endless.

 

NEXT: Finding One’s Way: Signs of Virginia  

 

-- February 27, 2006

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About "Nice & Curious"

 

In 1691, a group of English wits, calling themselves the Athenian Society, founded a publication entitled, "The Athenian Gazette or Causical Mercury, Resolving All the Most Nice and Curious Questions proposed by the Ingenious." The editors accepted questions posed by readers on any and all topics, and sought the most ingenious answers.

 

Inspired by their example, Edwin S. Clay III, president of the Virginia Library Association and Director of the Fairfax County Public Library, created an occasional column on Virginia facts that may require "ingenious answers" of the type favored by those 17th-century wags.

 

If you have a query, e-mail him at [email protected].

 

Fairfax County Public Library staff Patricia Bangs, Lois Kirkpatrick and MaryAnn Sheehan assist in the writing, editing and research of the column.