A new report from the state Department of Transportation outlines yet another area where the state will need to invest hundreds of millions of dollars over the next 15 years.
The state’s network of safety rest areas needs improvement. Many, if not all, of the state’s rest areas were built decades ago and are too small or in need of rebuilding. In Clark County, the Gee Creek rest area along Interstate 5 between Ridgefield and Salmon Creek is an example.
Not much has been done to enhance rest areas recently. It’s been almost 15 years since the state even had a strategic plan to improve them.
Now, 87 percent of rest area buildings are in critical condition, according to the 2023 study. It estimates taxpayers will need to invest between $375 million and $525 million over the next 15 years to make rest areas operate safely and efficiently.
Washington’s system of rest areas was established in 1965, with most of the 47 state rest areas built in the 15 years or so that followed. Currently they receive about 24 million annual users, 4 million more than the 2008-2019 average. They are particularly important to long-haul truckers who are prone to fatigue or need a safe place to stop during severe weather. They’re also handy for recreational vehicle owners, because 20 rest areas, including Gee Creek, have RV dump stations. And rare is the Washington motorist who hasn’t stopped at a state rest area to use the restroom.
The report says that the primary goal of rest areas is to increase traveler safety and reduce crashes on highways. That needs to remain the core mission. But there are side issues to address. In recent years, the homeless crisis has stressed rest areas as people overstay their allotted time limits, particularly in urban areas. Discouraging illegal camping will need to be part of any improvement plan going forward. Security and safety are also problems at rest areas, particularly those near urban areas. Some states, such as Louisiana, provide armed security overnight at rest areas, but that would be costly.
Another emerging need is for more truck parking. There are many more trucks on the road than a few years ago, in part due to the change in consumer shopping habits. Meanwhile, Washington’s population has more than doubled from 3.4 million in 1970, when the rest areas were under construction, to 7.95 million this year.
The plan discusses five main goals: Safety, financial sustainability, customer experience, commercial vehicle parking and resilience, which includes sustaining healthy communities, combating climate change and providing equitable services.
Financial sustainability may be the trickiest. Under the current framework of laws and regulations, rest areas have little opportunity to generate revenue, let alone become self-supporting. A 1956 federal law, for example, prohibits commercialization of rest areas.
A little can be done. For example, RV license fees currently include a $3 yearly fee to support rest area dump stations. That could be increased to fully cover the costs of providing that service. There may be some grant opportunities. And, assuming facilities can be rebuilt, operating costs of modern facilities could be less. But taxpayers ultimately will continue to foot the bill.
Although it’s tempting to just slap another coat of paint on the old restrooms and keep mowing around the picnic tables, the Legislature needs to take a closer look at this plan and find a way to modernize our highway safety rest areas.