PAULS VALLEY — 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 “They are outdated.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.
While fueling stations, restaurants and quick shops have sprung up along the interstates, it's still crucial that motorists have a spot where they can stop, rest and eat without having to get too far off the roadway or feel obligated to buy something to use the restroom, Angier said.
“We think it's a great service,” she said. “It has to be available. It's a matter of who makes it available is what the debate is.”
Some motorists now prefer making just one stop, and they want to get fuel at the same time while taking a restroom break, Angier said.
Cesar Morales said he wouldn't prefer a commercial developer take over the rest stop near Pauls Valley. Morales and his wife, Angela, usually stop there on trips from their home in Pingree Grove, Ill., to visit their son in Houston. They pack a picnic lunch with fruits and vegetables when they bring along their grandchildren, Amanni, 4, and Jasany, 6, as they did last week.
“It's healthier and better,” Morales said. “Sometimes it's cheaper, too ... We can walk around, use the restrooms and relax for a little bit.”
As private development has grown, the Transportation Department has closed some of its rest stops because there no longer was a need for them, Angier said. The agency closed a rest stop near Guthrie in 1996; a rest stop on northbound I-35 near the Kansas border and a rest stop on southbound I-35 near the Texas border were closed in the past 20 years.
The Transportation Department also has more than 100 small areas off highways across the state where motorists can stop. Some offer a picnic table and a trash barrel.
Angier said they offer either a scenic view or a spot where truckers and motorists can pull over to take a break or grab a quick nap; 17 are specifically for truckers and can accommodate up to 10 tractor-trailers. Their main purpose is to offer motorists an alternative to parking on the shoulder, putting them and other motorists at risk.
The Oklahoma Turnpike Authority has moved away from small rest stops built 40 to 50 years ago to modern travel service plazas.
“Those were built at a time when travel was at 50 to 55 mph and not 75 to 80, and so the access in and out of our rest areas just was not safe,” authority spokesman Jack Damrill said. “Most of ours were not lit. It just created an unsafe environment for our customers, and we just didn't want that.”
The authority, which manages the state's 10 turnpikes, has contracts with fuel companies and restaurants to operate the centers.
“We're passing our maintenance costs off to our vendors to save us money,” Damrill said.
It costs millions of dollars to build a rest stop, and annual maintenance runs into several hundred thousand dollars, he said. The old rest stops offered a picnic table and a portable restroom, which were not attractive; they also were in remote areas which caused some public safety concerns.
“We want to drive our customers to the service plazas,” Damrill said. “On most of our turnpikes, our service plazas are located anywhere from 30 to 40 miles between each other. … We want to drive them to a lit, secure area where they hopefully won't have to worry about something happening.”