Published August 29. 2012 4:00AM
It turns out Connecticut officials have been evolving on the issue of whether to provide water fountains at new highway rest areas.
Plans now include fountains in renovations of the service areas.
When I noticed on a recent car trip south that some of the new rest areas on Interstate 95 don't have fountains, I asked the state Department of Transportation why.
On that long car trip, every other state I passed through had water fountains. They are as ubiquitous on highway stops as gas pumps and rest rooms.
The first official Connecticut response from the DOT, which let the contract for a developer to build and operate 15 new rest areas - four are done - was strange.
There wasn't enough room for fountains, I was told by the DOT spokesman in early August. And travelers could always ask at the fast food restaurants for cups to fill in the bathroom sinks, where the water is free.
Some of the initial reaction I got when I wrote about that suggestion from the state was, well, yuk. Who wants to get their water from a sink in a public bathroom?
I also got an interesting email from a building code consultant, a reader who said that fountains would be required by building codes in the rest areas, which are meant to accommodate more than 500 people.
When I asked the DOT in mid-August about the building code requirement, they held firm.
But there was a new twist.
The developer of the new rest areas was told, a DOT spokesman said, that if fountains were not installed then all restaurants would be required to provide cups of water to anyone who asked. Restaurant employees would have to fill the cup behind the counter, and you wouldn't have to take it to the bathroom, the DOT said.
Evidently this policy was aimed at an exemption to the building code that says restaurants that serve water don't have to have fountains. Seems to me it misses the exemption by a mile.
I wondered, had any of these people considered what it would be like to wait at a long line at McDonald's and ask for your free cup of water. Would the person behind the counter really know about the policy? And how would travelers know they could ask in the first place?
This is different than restaurants where a wait person comes around and fills a water glass. That's what the restaurant exemption to the fountain requirement is clearly meant to address.
Meanwhile, I put in a call to the office of the state building official, to see how the DOT and the developer of the rest areas, a group of investors led by the parent company of Subway restaurants, could escape the building code.
But before I got a call back from the building official, confirming that, indeed, fountains are required by code, I heard from a reader who got a letter Monday from the DOT saying they would be installing fountains after all.
The reader had first contacted the governor but was then referred to the DOT.
"After much consideration we have decided to include, as part of the redevelopment program, the installation of drinking fountains on all of the larger service plazas," a DOT property director wrote to the woman who complained to the governor.
Smaller plazas on I-95, Route 15 and I-395 will get self-service soda stations with complimentary cups for water and a sign clearly informing patrons that it is available, the property director said.
The DOT letter blamed the original decision not to require water fountains on concerns for public health, suggesting that "studies have shown that drinking fountains can be a significant source of germs."
Water fountains were not eliminated from the renovations to sell more bottled water and drinks, the property director said in his letter, "contrary to what some may believe."
I will hang on to some reporter suspicions about that assertion.
Still, I am glad the DOT has seen fit to require a developer that is going to make a lot of money off people driving through Connecticut to at least offer them a drink of water.
That's what they've been doing almost everywhere else, for generations.
This is the opinion of David Collins