A quiet moment at the Maytown Safety Rest Area on Interstate 5 south of Olympia. (Jerry Cornfield/Washington State Standard)Drivers pulling into the Maytown rest area south of Olympia on Thursday morning encountered few open parking spaces.
Cars, pick-ups, vans and motorcycles filled a majority of stalls at this highway pit stop at milepost 93 on southbound Interstate 5.
A similar experience awaited arriving trucks as big rigs occupied nearly every space, save one in which a recreational vehicle was parked for a brief layover.
And it was only 8:30. This popular pull-off is one of 47 rest stops statewide which collectively serve 24 million people a year. A survey last year found 70% of visitors will spend less than an hour at a site.
But years of heavy usage have taken their toll. They’re not just rundown, they’re out of date with a lack of family and gender-neutral bathrooms. Increasing numbers of homeless individuals are encamping in some. And reports of crime are making travelers and state workers who tend the sites feel unsafe.
The Washington State Department of Transportation, which operates and maintains rest areas, has released the draft of a long-term strategy with recommendations to fix up buildings, add security cameras, expand truck parking, and ensure facilities are inclusive for all visitors. The last such plan came out in 2008.
WSDOT spokesperson Barbara LaBoe called it “a road map” for everyone involved in the conversation.
“We certainly believe we captured all of the main issues,” she said. “We want legislators and the public to know the situation so we can decide what we might want to do going forward.”
Safety rest areas in the U.S. date back to the middle of last century. The federal Highway Beautification Act of 1965 jumpstarted widespread development by pushing states to plan for them.
Washington set out to build up to 15 new rest areas by 1967. The facilities were designed to include restroom structures made from native stone and tinted buff concrete blocks with hand-hewn flat roofs, according to WSDOT documents.
The first, Blue Lake, opened on Highway 17 between Soap Lake and Coulee City, in 1966. It cost $64,000 to construct with most of the tab picked up by the federal government, according to news coverage. Washington built 34 more in the next eight years.
Washington’s newest rest area opened in January 2012 on state Route 7 in Elbe on the way to and from Mount Rainier National Park.
Openings were celebrated with dedication ceremonies. A program for the 1969 opening of the Quincy Valley rest area on State Route 28, notes the “beautiful” restroom building, paved parking stalls for 32 cars and 11 trucks, 15 picnic tables and a well providing running water.
Since then, Washington has transformed with population growth, expanded commerce, a public health crisis, and social changes.
Total annual usage and demand for parking have grown beyond what utilities and commercial truck parking amenities were built to support, the new draft plan says. An inadequate maintenance budget limits the ability to address customer needs.
The road ahead
The newly released draft strategy says 87% of the rest areas are rated in critical condition and an investment of $375 million to $525 million is needed in the next 15 years for modernizing rest areas. The figures are based on full renovation at 20 locations and light upgrades at the rest. No areas would be closed nor new ones built.
A focal point of investments and the strategy is making locations safer for users and state workers.
“Safety concerns such as illegal parking, aggressive panhandling, drug use, prostitution, illegal disposal of trash and waste, vandalism, verbal abuse, domestic disturbances, and human trafficking have been identified at some SRAs (safety rest areas),” according to the draft plan.
“The homeless crisis has led to parking and public health and safety concerns at larger SRAs near major urban locations,” it continues. Rest stops are intended for short-term visits by the traveling public and freight haulers and vehicles parking beyond the legally posted limits “has led to ongoing challenges.”
It recommends cameras, fencing, deployment of security or law enforcement, and revised parking time limits be considered to boost safety. Creating truck-only rest areas could ease a shortage of spots.
The report points out other states use staffing, private security, cameras and laws to bolster safety in their rest areas. Florida and Texas, for example, have law enforcement or security at every site.
New partnerships with private entities and hiking the sanitary dumping fee, which has been $3 since 1996, are a couple ways to help cover ongoing program costs, especially since commercial businesses are barred by federal law at the sites.
To improve customer experience, the report recommends better technology at the sites – other states offer free wifi – and ensuring new and renovated facilities are inclusive for every visitor’s needs. Additional vending options, water bottle filling machines and hot water stations for instant foods are among ideas truck drivers hope are added.
Public comments on the plan can be submitted to email@example.com. until 5 p.m. Aug. 30. A final plan will be publicly released this fall. Legislators could consider suggestions from the final version in the 2024 session.
— By Jerry Cornfield, Washington State Standard
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