About a half-dozen rest stops on Connecticut interstate highways are closed to the public 17 out of 24 hours each day. That unprecedented situation, described in terms ranging from deplorable and inexcusable to disgusting and unwelcoming, has been unchanged, despite public and official criticism, for more than two years. It began during a time of fiscal constraints, and it remains unclear whether their status is likely to change any time soon.
The State Department of Transportation website indicates the impacted rest facilities are in Danbury and Southington on I-84 East, and in Willington on I-84 East and I-84 West; on I-91 North in Middletown and I-91 South in Wallingford; and on I-95 South in North Stonington. They open at 8:30 each morning and close at 3:30 each afternoon.
The latest official Calendar of the Connecticut State Senate – the list of proposed legislation that has been approved by a legislative committee and currently awaits debate and a vote by the Senate – runs 45 pages, with approximately five or six proposed bills listed per page.
Among them is Senate Bill No. 192, An Act Concerning the Reopening of Connecticut’s Visitor Welcome Centers Using Volunteer Staffing.
It would require, according to the Office of Legislative Research, the state’s Department of Economic and Community development to “develop a plan to recruit local volunteers” to staff the state’s six visitor welcome centers and reopen any closed centers. That plan, however, would not need to be submitted until next year – by February 1, 2020 – to the legislature’s Commerce Committee. The fate of any plan submitted would be uncertain.
Even though the bill would not require anything more than a plan – not the more immediate re-openings that some have urged - it has been ready and waiting since April 3, after being approved unanimously by the Commerce Committee on March 18, which followed a public hearing on February 15. If the Senate were to approve the bill, it would then need to be voted on in the House of Representatives, and if passed there would go on to Gov. Lamont for his signature before becoming law.
There is no cost anticipated if the bill were to be enacted. The Office of Fiscal Analysis indicated three weeks ago that “the planning that the bill requires can be accomplished by the Department of Economic and Community Development with no fiscal impact.”
Similar legislation has either not progressed at all, but is unclear as to the impact on the reduced-hours rest area facilities.
Substitute for House Bill 7306, “requires (1) restroom facilities at the state’s six visitor welcome centers to be open 24-hours per day and (2) visitor center signage to indicate the hours when the centers are open.”
The latest version of the bill defines "visitor welcome center" as “the welcome centers, visitor centers and tourist information centers located in West Willington, Greenwich, Danbury, Darien, North Stonington and Westbrook” – locations that differ in some instances from the locations listed on the DOT website as having reduced hours. The bill states that “the restroom facilities located at each visitor welcome center shall be open twenty-four hours a day.”
There is uncertainty as to whether all the locations currently with reduced hours, as listed on the DOT website, would be impacted by the narrow and specific language of the bill.
The bill, which focuses on various tourism-promoting initiatives including establishment of a Connecticut Tourism Council, would be effective sooner- as soon as it is approved by both the House and Senate, and signed by the Governor. It was approved unanimously by the Commerce Committee on March 19.
It reached the House Calendar on April 3, where it remains, ready and awaiting action. Its title, An Act Concerning Recommendations from the Speaker of the House of Representatives’ Blue Ribbon Commission on Tourism, suggests it may have the better chance. But, as with all proposed legislation, can be revised by amendment at any time.
The latest House Calendar included 64 pages of proposed bills – about six bills per page - that had been approved by legislative committees and await a House vote.
Not even reaching the lengthy ready-for-action calendar is a similar bill (SB 713) introduced by Sen. Cathy Osten (D-19), that would “require the Commissioner of Transportation to open and maintain rest areas twenty-four hours a day” in order to “welcome visitors to the state and allow truck drivers to take federally mandated breaks.” That proposal has not been voted on by the legislature’s Transportation Committee, where it was assigned.
Testifying in support of that legislation in mid-February, Roy Merritt of the Connecticut Society of Civil Engineers section of the American Society of Civil Engineers said “The simple measure of keeping our rest areas open 24/7 is a small commitment that a functioning state government should be able to achieve,” adding that “it is imperative that we find whatever funding sources are needed to open our rest areas around the clock and properly maintain them.” Merritt noted that “rest areas are more than a public convenience” - they also “provide a public safety benefit.”
Sen. Osten, in her testimony advocating passage of the legislation, said that “tired drivers jeopardize themselves and other motorists and need a safe place to stop.”
Gov. Lamont’s transition committee considering transportation and tourism issues called for the reopening of the rest areas within the first 100 days of the new administration as a way to "improve customer service through targeted, quick wins." The first 100 days have come and gone.
The House bill would require the restroom facilities at the states six visitor welcome centers - in Danbury, Darien, Greenwich, North Stonington, West Willington, and Westbrook - to be open 24 hours per day. The bill does not mention the rest areas in Southington, Middletown or Wallingford.
The Office of Fiscal Analysis (OFA) points out that “Of these six centers, three are open part time, 2 are open full time and one has been closed. Currently, the visitor welcome centers in West Willington, Danbury and North Stonington are within the rest area facilities which are maintained by the Department of Transportation (DOT) during the hours of 8:30-3:30.
OFA notes that “there are 12 rest area attendants at a cost of approximately $500,000 annually. By keeping these three visitor welcome centers open an additional 16 hours, there would an associated fiscal impact of up to $371,894 for six rest area attendant positions ($263,400 for salary and $108,494 for fringe benefit costs). This cost is dependent on having one rest area attendant stationed at each welcome center for each shift.
The visitor welcome centers of Greenwich and Darien are within the service plazas and are currently open 24 hours a day which will not result in a cost as they are already overseen by DOT’s Property and Facilities Division.
The Westbrook visitor welcome center has been closed since July 27, 2016. There would be an anticipated cost of up to $100,000 for the inspection, cleaning and other repairs needed to open the visitor welcome center. Also, an associated cost of $185,947 ($131,700 for salary and $54,247 for fringe benefit costs) would be needed for three rest area attendant positions. This cost is dependent on having one rest area attendant stationed for each shift.”