State lacks money to finish rest stop renovations

Wednesday, August 3, 2011 | 5:02 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri is about halfway done with a decade-old plan to reduce its number of highway rest stops and improve those that remain, but it's unclear when the state will have enough money to finish the job.

The Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission heard an update Wednesday on the rest-stop renovation plan, which was developed in 2000 as a way to reduce annual operating costs, spruce up the facilities for tourists and expand the number of parking spots available to commercial truck drivers.

At the time, Missouri had 34 rest stops at 19 sites and was spending $4.6 million a year to maintain them. The Department of Transportation set a goal of reducing that to 24 facilities at 16 locations. In many cases, the state targeted for closure the rest stops available to motorists who are about to leave the state and built new, more attractive welcome centers on the other side of the highway for drivers entering Missouri.

As of Wednesday, the state had reduced its rest stops to 27 facilities at 17 sites with an annual operating cost of $3.8 million, according to department figures. Many of the closed rest stops have been converted into parking space for trucks.

The state has spent about $36 million so far to construct modern replacements for some of the torn-down facilities, said Don Hillis, MoDOT assistant chief engineer.

Many of new rest stops — now called welcome centers —have playgrounds and artwork reflecting regional themes. For example, an Interstate 44 facility near Joplin has a mural made of old license plates and the I-44 rest stop near Conway has a theme highlighting its heritage along old Route U.S. 66. An Interstate 35 facility near Eagleville has statues of buffalo on a plain.

Hillis said it would cost $96 million to complete 13 facilities at nine sites still remaining on the 2000 renovation plan, but those projects are not currently included in the department's budget.

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