Plan to close rest areas
"If you don't want us peeing in the woods, you better have some place open for us," said Donna Decoteau, 64, of Worcester, Mass., who stopped for coffee and a break at the Randolph rest area on Interstate 89 north while en route to Burlington to visit her grandson at UVM.
Facing a projected $60 million budget gap, the state announced plans Monday to close Interstate 89 rest areas in Highgate, Sharon and Randolph and an Interstate 91 rest area in Hartford.
Doing so would save about $1 million annually, according to Gerry Myers, commissioner of the state Department of Buildings and General Services.
The move, which was proposed by Gov. Jim Douglas' administration Monday, still has to be approved by Vermont lawmakers. In addition to the impact on motorists, 12 jobs 10 of them occupied would be eliminated.
For many, the rest stops serve both as places to answer nature's call and sources of information about Vermont, its myriad small businesses and attractions and weather conditions. With free Green Mountain Coffee, free Wi-Fi access, maps of Vermont and wall displays loaded with brochures from ski areas, bed-and-breakfast inns and museums, the rest areas offer more than a toilet to weary travelers.
"Vermont has great rest areas," said Lisa Wagner, 45, of York, Maine, on her way out of the Randolph north rest area with a cup of coffee in hand.
The "travel representatives" who staff the buildings from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily serve as both custodians and roadside ambassadors. They clean commodes, give directions and welcome Vermont visitors, among other things.
"They definitely should be kept open," said tractor-trailer driver Wayne Thomas, 60, of Charlestown, N.H., who pulled into the Interstate 89 south rest stop in Sharon to use the bathroom Tuesday. "Nothing's worse than seeing somebody on the site of the highway, going to the bathroom. It's embarrassing for a family."
Inside the small gray-shingled building, travel representative Mike Charron, 57, got a steady stream of inquiries from regulars who'd heard about the state's plan to close the stop.
"Are you losing your job?" one man asked him. Charron said he didn't know.
About 250,000 people pass through the doors of the rest stop annually, he said.
Myers said the state spent months analyzing data to determine which rest areas could be closed with the least adverse effect.
As a rule, he said, highways are supposed to have them no more than 60 miles apart. The closing of the rest area on Interstate 89 north in Randolph would be OK, he said, since it's 48 miles from the Sharon northbound rest area and the Williston rest area.
Motorists won't be the only ones affected by the proposed closings.
If Randolph closes, motorists seeking a stop in that neck of the woods would likely head to a McDonald's restaurant and Rinker's Mobil, a gas station and convenience store located immediately adjacent to Exit 4.
"We were just talking about that this morning," said Gail Lund, a cashier at Rinker's Mobil. "We are going to be hopping. The line for the bathroom will probably be longer than the line for the gas."
Alicia Ferguson, 51, of Brookfield, who stopped at the Sharon rest area Tuesday, had an idea for the state.
"If there's a way they could put up signs asking people to donate a dollar and you have a million people stopping here, there's your $1 million," she said.
Also Tuesday, advocates for the disabled turned out in force in Montpelier to lobby lawmakers who will vote on the proposed budget cuts Friday. Dozens of people packed a Statehouse conference room to plead with members of the Legislature's Joint Fiscal Committee to wield their budget axe sparingly.
Among them was Todd Washburne, 42, of Montpelier, who suffers from autism and needed the assistance of a computer to voice his support for Washington County Mental Health Services Inc., which gets state funding that could be in jeopardy.
"As you might imagine, I am very concerned about cuts at a time when I need more services, not less. I am scared to death I may never be given a chance to lead a productive life," he said, as his mother, Gloria Washburne, help his arm.
Margaret Joyal, director of outpatient services for Washington County Mental Health, warned the panel that state funding cuts to her agency would have a ripple effect, reducing psychiatric services to many.
"If I lay off two people, that will be 120 individuals who will not get seen," said Joyal.
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