MILFORD, Conn. — Truck driver Conrad Ouellette remembers how happy he was when Connecticut's rest stops replaced their Howard Johnson's outlets with McDonald's, where he could snag a quick chocolate shake while hauling construction debris.
But 25 years and countless chocolate shakes later, not much has changed. Clean but not charming, functional but not fun, Connecticut's 23 state-owned service plazas grew outdated even by standards of the self-proclaimed Land of Steady Habits.
"They're all pretty tired. They all need a little freshening up and a little more variety," said Ouellette, of Plainville, as he stopped at an Interstate 95 service plaza in Milford on a recent brisk afternoon.
Ouellette and other travelers into and out of southern New England will soon get their wish. As many states close rest stops to save money, Connecticut is bucking the trend with the first overhaul of its 23 state-owned plazas since the early 1980s.
Thousands of travelers visit the plazas every day on I-95 and the Merritt and Wilbur Cross parkways, the major routes connecting New England with New York and points south.
"People want to get off the highway quickly, do what they need to do and get back on the highway quickly when they're in transit. But when you go into the service plazas in other states, it becomes pretty clear that what we have here doesn't stack up," said Connecticut state Transportation Commissioner Joseph F. Marie.
The upgrades, which start this spring, are part of a 35-year deal with Project Service LLC, a joint venture of the Subway food chain's parent company and a private equity group.
Project Service is spending $178 million to overhaul the plazas and will give Connecticut more than $300 million over the life of the deal. In addition, it must put in $17 million to modernize them again just before the deal expires and the plazas' management reverts to the state.
The rest stops mostly were built in the 1940s and 1950s. Most are on I-95 and the parkways, and a few are on I-395 in eastern Connecticut.
The buildings will be upgraded and, in some cases, replaced. They'll feature Subway locations, convenience stores, other restaurants and a Dunkin' Donuts at every stop. McDonald's will remain at eight of the larger rest stops.
Paul Landino, Project Service LLC's president and CEO, said the company wants to make the plazas so inviting that out-of-state travelers remember them for future trips, and that nearby residents socialize there for after-movie snacks, coffee gatherings or other events.
Modern-day U.S. rest stops date to the creation of the interstate highway system in 1956, though many busy roads had roadside parking areas with picnic tables and bathrooms.
Over time, many service plazas became landmarks for travelers who scheduled their bathroom breaks, dog-walking stops and coffee refills at certain points on their routes.
"I think that below the surface, there's some recognition of them being part of our travel culture," said Joanna Dowling, an Illinois-based historical consultant who runs a Web site on the topic, www.restareahistory.org.
"In talking with people about the history of rest areas, there's often a strange reaction at first — but then people do start reflecting on certain ones where they stopped as a kid or specific ones they recall," she said.
By 1972, a federal report said more than 1,200 service plazas were operating on interstate highways. In recent years, though, several states have cut back to save money.
The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials says Arizona, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Maine, Texas and Virginia all have closed at least five of their highway rest areas in the last five years.
The most common reasons: budget problems, the cost of overhauling old facilities and competition from businesses around highway exits.
In Connecticut, though, the planned renovations are getting positive reviews from many travelers.
Robert Shiner of Nazareth, Pa., stops regularly at the Connecticut plazas while driving his mother, Naomi, to visit relatives in Providence, R.I., every few months.
"It's nice and convenient to just get off the highway and get back on so easily," he said, "and having a Dunkin' Donuts, that would be great. They're everywhere but here."
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