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Water fountains disappear from Connecticut rest areas

By David Collins

Publication: The Day

Published August 08. 2012 4:00AM

On a recent car trip driving south I had a chance to visit one of the new Connecticut highway rest areas.

Four of the new plazas are open so far, in the New Haven area. Another 11 are in the pipeline, including one on Interstate 395 in Montville.

What struck me on my first visit, beyond the preponderance of fast-food outlets - these new plazas are basically food courts - was the lack of public drinking fountains.

This missing staple of highway rest stops became more apparent on the rest of my trip. I paid attention, and there were free public water fountains in New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina.

I later Googled around and saw that, indeed, rest area water fountains are considered a staple in most states. They are even required by law in Utah.

It's part of what makes a place civilized. Give travelers a place to stop for a drink of water and the use of a rest room.

Not in Connecticut, though. Not anymore.

When I put the water fountain question this week to a spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Transportation, which made the deal for a consortium of private developers to build and operate the new rest areas, I expected some equivocation.

Maybe, I thought the DOT might say, this was some kind of oversight at the first new plazas. And the fountains are coming.

Instead I got a series of lame excuses about why Connecticut is inhospitably and inhumanely rolling up the welcome mat at its highway stops.

"I am told the water fountains were not included in order to maximize space for dining, retail shops etc." was the first emailed response I got back from the DOT director of communications.

He added that you could always bring your own water bottle and fill it at one of the restroom sinks, in which, he said, the water is free.

There was no space for fountains. And there is free water in the sinks in the bathrooms.

Those were the first answers. Honest.

Later, I got emails explaining that you could ask for a free cup at one of the fast-food restaurants and take that into the bathroom and fill it. Also, the communications director wrote of fountains: "there are many, many people who won't use them because of concerns over health, germs etc."

Really? Fountains were excluded because of health risks?

First of all, if I were a germaphobe, I would much prefer water from a fountain than water from a sink in a public bathroom.

And, honestly, the world is full of water fountains. Surely there are thousands of them all over Connecticut, many run by the state and municipalities, without objection from all the public health departments involved.

I was in New York City recently and noticed big banks of temporary water fountains set up on sidewalks, fed by fire hydrants. No one hydrating in the city heat seemed worried about health risks.

As for asking for cups at the fast-food counters, everyone knows these restaurants charge for cups. That's how you pay for the soda fountain drinks.

And even if the person at the counter would give you a cup, you would have to wait in line for it at a restaurant.

In fact, that's what the lack of water fountains at Connecticut's new rest plazas is really all about.

It's obviously a greedy scheme for maximizing profits. Why give away free water at fountains when you can charge people for bottled water or soda or juice? That's the business philosophy at work here.

And clearly state DOT officials have signed on.

Maybe next they will be charging for sheets of toilet paper.

Some Connecticut lawmakers have complained that the 35-year rest area deal was too rich for the group of developers, which includes the parent company of Subway restaurants and the notorious Carlyle Group, the global private equity firm known for both its consulting fees to former President George H. W. Bush and its one-time links to the bin Laden family.

The DOT says the state should get $248 million in revenue from the deal over the next 35 years. That includes a cut of the sales of food and gas.

This fiscal year, the state will get $1 million in general fees, 1.25 percent of gross sales and one cent on every gallon of fuel pumped.

That doesn't seem like much, in return for a lease on some of the most prominent, well-trafficked commercial real estate in the Northeast.

But the terms of the deal help explain the state's buying into the plan to sell drinks to travelers, instead of kindly offering them a drink of water.

Welcome to Connecticut, the greedy state.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

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