Rest Stop Closures

Brewerton, NY – The state is closing rest stops along the Thruway and other major highways to save money.

WRVO's Joyce Gramza visited one of those rest stops, along Route 81 in Oswego County, to find out what it will mean to the people who use it and who depend on it for work.

The Long and the Restless

At about 8:20 on a Wednesday morning, a steady stream of cars stopped at the Brewerton Rest Area on New York's Route 81 South.

Folks like snowbirds Katherine and Gil Gratton, of Ottawa, who stopped on their way to Florida, said they much prefer these facilities to taking their chances off the highway.

"They're well-maintained, they're clean, you know you can rely on them," Mrs. Gratton said.

They're far from the only ones appreciative of the rest area about mid-way between Watertown and Syracuse.

"I live in Clayton, which is 75 miles from here, and this has always been a very convenient pit-stop for me," said Sam Steadman.

Junius Ponds it's not. There's no gas, no fast food and no gift shop.

But it has other things going for it. The scenic setting makes the parking lots feel like parks, so lots of people don't just stop for the rest rooms and take off again. Many walk around enjoying the beautiful day.

"We're enjoying being able to stop in this beautiful area," said Allen of Montreal. "We were just tired and we stopped, but this is just gorgeous," said Harriet, his wife.

And as Army veteran Russell James Stokes pointed out, it's also an historic site.

Stokes said as a vet, he appreciates history, and makes a point of stopping here on trips from Canton, NY to the VA Hospital in Syracuse.

"People stop here to look at this stuff and read it and understand the history of New York, and they're going to take that all away," he said.

Stokes is upset that this rest area is closing.

It's one of six chosen for closure by the state Department of Transportation to save money.

That news is surprising to some, like realtor Ernest Scribner, who drives this route almost every day to Syracuse or points south.

Scribner noticed the sign saying the area would close on November first. "I assume they're going to do repairs or rebuild it or improve it," he said. "So, I can work around it."

We informed him that it's being closed to save the state money. "Why would they be doing that?" he wondered. "This is a very important rest stop, I think. It's the only one between here and Watertown so that's interesting. I don't like that idea."

In fact, no one we talked to liked that idea. Some were downright appalled, like Bob and Patricia Beck of Sandy Creek. They worried about truckers as well as for motorists like themselves.

"It's a disgrace," said Mr. Beck. "This state is horrible. They take and take from us our money and our facilities like this."

"The people need the services in this state," said Mrs. Beck. "I don't know what they're going to do. They close it, they close it. We're stuck."

And while we obviously didn't run into anyone who didn't stop here, there was a nonstop stream of those who did from the bus-load of 40 high school students on a field trip from Ogdensburg to Syracuse Stage, to Scot and Rhonda Thomas and toddler Bradley, who were waiting for help at a picnic table after a tire blew out on the road.

"That makes no sense that they would close it. It's already here!" said Mrs. Thomas.

"If this wasn't here, we'd be on the side of 81 with a baby," she said.

In the opposite lot were some folks who would also rather not be on the side of 81-- the truckers who park overnight.

When we arrived, there were still a half-dozen rigs in the lot getting ready to roll.

Robert Leach, of Georgia, was on his way from Ontario to North Carolina. He said closing rest areas is counter to the federal regulations that truckers get 10-hour rests. "They're going to complain the trucks don't stop and get enough rest," he said. "Well, where do you want us to stop at?"

Leach said the commercial truck stop, Pilot in Liverpool, is often full by 4:00 p.m.

Steve Hartsler, an over-the-road trucker from Missouri, agreed. "If this place closes with how many parking spots then we've got to look for someplace else to park," he said.

State Senator James L. Seward says that's not just a question of convenience.

"The lighting may be poor, it may be dark. No one else around, almost inviting, you know, somebody who wants to rob or harm a trucker or motorist. It's almost inviting that, versus one of these well-lit busy rest areas," Seward said.

Seward, of the 51st Senate District, has been trying to increase safe parking areas nationally since Oneonta trucker Jason Rivenburg was murdered in 2009.

"There were no safe rest areas for him to park his rig and to rest," Seward said. "He ended up at an abandoned gas station and was killed during an attempted robbery."

"We should be providing additional areas, not fewer. That's why I object to the closure of some of the rest areas," he said.

The state DOT says the closures will save a half-million dollars this fiscal year and a million a year after that.

Seward says that is "penny wise and pound foolish."

"These are not expensive to operate. You have to empty the garbage, keep the restrooms open and clean, the lights on. This is not an expensive proposition to the state to have these areas open yet they're vitally important to truckers and other motorists," said Seward.

We ran into the gentleman who kept the restrooms open and clean. He said he couldn't talk to us and referred us to his employer.

His employer is Oswego Industries, a training and jobs program for people with disabilities. Stephanie Crowley, the agency's spokesperson, confirmed four to ten custodians are losing their jobs.

She said they are lobbying Albany, but preparing for the worst by looking for other positions for the crew.

Seward has also tried reaching out to Governor David Paterson and to DOT Commissioner Stanley Gee. He urged anyone else concerned to do the same.

Our veteran, Stokes, may give that a try despite his initial reaction.

"Can we petition? Can we write somebody?," Stokes asked. "The governor, maybe?" We suggested. "Yeah like that'll do any good!" Stokes said, enjoying an infectious laugh.

The other rest area slated to close November 1, the Schodack rest area on the thruway outside of Albany, was actually kept open a little longer, until 6:00 p.m. on Monday.

That's when a special permit expired allowing truckers to hold a protest against its closure.

Four other rest areas around the state are slated to close on December first.