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North Stonington highway rest area reopens

North Stonington – For the steady stream of road weary visitors to the North Stonington Welcome Center on Thursday, the facilities were what they expected from a rest area.

The bathrooms were clean. The tourism pamphlets were neatly sorted on racks. The vending machines were well stocked.

North Stonington’s rest stop, off the southbound side of Interstate 95, and six other rest areas went back into full operation on Monday — the start of the new fiscal year. The state’s new two-year budget again supports the state Department of Transportation staffing to allow for 24-7 maintenance.

Funding was cut in the fall of 2016 and the state’s seven rest areas were limited to one-shift, daytime operations. The buildings started closing at about 3 p.m., leaving visitors with only one option — the portable toilets outside. The air-conditioned welcome center side was closed permanently and used for storage in North Stonington.

On Thursday, Kristen Vega of Massachusetts laughed at the thought of the state of Connecticut not having enough money to open the rest area 24 hours a day.

Vega was headed from Rhode Island through Connecticut on her way to meet friends in New York and said she was happy not to have to use a portable toilet.

Looking over at the neatly trimmed landscape and the shaded picnic area where a family of five enjoyed a mid-morning brunch on a newly rehabbed picnic table, Vega said “it’s charming, just like the rest of this state.”

Local legislators such as State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague and State Rep. Kate Rotella, D-Stonington, had called for the reopening of the rest areas. Osten had submitted a Senate bill calling for the reopening and said it was in part for the convenience and safety of truckers, families and individuals traveling in the overnight hours.

A Blue Ribbon Panel on Tourism delivered a report to the legislature’s Commerce Committee earlier this year recommending the same, along with calling for a new state marketing campaign. For now, the “Still Revolutionary,” slogan remains in various places throughout the welcome center.

The state was spending about $500,000 per year to staff the rest stops for seven hours a day. Staffing for 24 hours will cost a total of about $1.7 million per year. The seven rest areas include four on Interstate 84 and two on Interstate 91. A rest area in Westbrook remains closed.

State Sen. Paul Formica, R- East Lyme, said there was bipartisan support in the last fiscal year’s budget to at least start the process of reopening the rest areas, which in some cases are the first introduction to Connecticut for travelers.

“I praise Gov. Lamont for seeing the benefit of showing those people that we are welcoming and we are open for business. Open signs are more conducive to that than closed signs.”

Teryl and Louisa Foster of Rhode Island, with son and daughter in tow, emerged from the welcome center building Thursday with smiles. The group was headed to North Carolina on one of their annual holiday trips and shrugged when asked about the facilities.

“It was clean and well kept,” Foster said.

Eiden Foster, 11, noted that the canine rest area was a nice feature and considerate of the fact that animals have needs too.

g.smith@theday.com

 

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