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Oklahoma reaches a crossroads with rest stops

The Oklahoma Transportation Department is considering what to do with outdated rest stops in the middle of the state.
BY MICHAEL MCNUTT mmcnutt@opubco.com Modified: July 30, 2013 at 2:00 pm •  Published: July 29, 2013

— Richard Coley says the rest stops along Interstate 35 near here remind him of summer vacation trips he took with his family as a youngster more than 40 years ago.

“It was a lot of fun back then,” said Coley, 53, of Norman. “I like the old scenic-style stuff, nostalgia-like things.”

However, that's not the image or type of service that Oklahoma wants to leave with motorists.

State transportation officials realize the rest stops south of Pauls Valley and five other similar rest stops in the interior of the state are in need of upgrading.

The concrete-block restrooms were built in the late 1960s and early 1970s as the state's interstate system was being developed.

Their function and their structures need to be updated to meet the needs of modern motorists, they say. The agency is gathering information on what to do with the older rest stops.

“It's definitely time for us to decide what's going to happen to them,” said Terri Angier, state Transportation Department spokeswoman. “They are outdated. … We are painfully aware.”

The rest stops are cleaned at least twice a day, she said.

“They're clean,” Angier said. “They're just so old that they don't look good.”

The rest stops are right off the roadway. Motorists can make a quick stop or they can stay awhile either to eat a snack on one of the picnic tables or take a nap in their vehicles.

“When the interstate system was built, there was nothing in those areas,” Angier said. “Over the last 40 years, development has come. ... Now every 10 to 15 miles, if not more frequently, there are travel stops that have come along as a result of the highway system being there.”

The Transportation Department has 11 rest stops, all but one of which are off I-35 or Interstate 40. The other rest stop is in southern Oklahoma off U.S. 69. The agency spends about $2 million a year maintaining them.

A big stumbling block to improving the rest stops has been money.

“It's been very difficult for us to go spend $15 million, for example, on a facility when we keep complaining about how bad our funding has been for the roads and bridges,” Angier said. “At some point we have to decide ... how we can justify the funds to redo them.

“We're at a point where we have to make some of those decisions. We're talking with other states. ... We certainly understand the need of the services that these rest areas provide.”

The newest rest stop built by the agency, an eastbound tourist information center off I-40 near the Texas border, was built in 2009 at a cost of about $6.5 million, Angier said.

The Transportation Department over the past 20 years, along with the state Tourism and Recreation Department, has shifted to developing information centers. Five are now information centers, which feature modern buildings and restrooms. About half the $2 million the Transportation Department spends on rest stops goes to the Tourism Department to operate the information centers.

Restrooms in the information centers all have changing tables, which make it easier for parents to take care of infants and toddlers. In contrast, the men's room at the northbound Pauls Valley stop offers a long wooden bench, which could be used to change diapers.

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