EUGENE, Ore. (AP) - In Shane Hayes’ first two weeks as rest area specialist at the Oak Grove stop on Interstate 5 north of Eugene, he’s compiled a lengthy to-do list.
After switching the restrooms over to all “green” products, installing new toilet paper roll holders and cleaning out drains, he plans to fill two dry wells that could easily trip visitors, replace broken bench boards and improve parking lot drainage so that the space won’t flood during rainstorms anymore.
The pair of rest stops, at milepost 206 on either side of Interstate 5, about 10 miles north of Eugene, certainly isn’t in shambles, Hayes said. But he wants to turn it into a cleaner, safer and more helpful space for motorists.
“If you came back here six months from now, this would be almost unrecognizable,” he said.
That’s the goal of Oregon Travel Experience, which employs Hayes and now manages 28 of the Oregon Department of Transportation’s 40 rest areas and one U.S. Forest Service stop near Government Camp. Oregon Travel Experience is a semi-independent state agency overseen by the Oregon Travel Information Council, which is appointed by the governor.
The group initially took over management of a handful of rest areas in the state in 2010, to revive the lackluster reputation of the sites. Since then, the state has added more sites to the agency’s portfolio.
The latest addition of nine new sites, including the Oak Grove stops, took effect March 1. At the newly added stops, Oregon Travel Experience will have staff present for eight hours a day, seven days a week, to provide visitors with well-maintained facilities and roadside help services such as changing flat tires, retrieving left-behind pets or giving directions to the nearest restaurant.
Starting this month, the group said it plans to transform the nine newly added rest areas into comfortable and convenient travel hubs.
Not only will the restrooms be clean, the group says, but the foliage around the facilities will be cut back to diminish the chance of predators hiding among overgrown shrubs or trees.
“Our main focus is public safety and helping travelers to have a good experience as they pass through our rest areas,” said Jason Nash, director of rest area operations for Oregon Travel Experience.
Travelers who want to comment on the rest areas are being offered an electronic and mobile version of a comment card at the Oak Grove stops, as well as the French Prairie stops on I-5 near Wilsonville, and the Santiam River stops on I-5 near Albany.
For the past several years, Oregon Travel Experience has encouraged rest area visitors to use old-fashioned printed comment cards provided at rest areas. Visitors typically have filled these out with pens or pencils and put them in collection boxes that staff would pick up and review.
But visitors at the selected sites now can use a smartphone to scan a QR tag that will be displayed on posters, connecting them to a survey on a website. They can also text or call 503-388-6292 to submit their comments.
Mark Sharp, who stopped at the southbound Oak Grove rest area while transporting a patient from Portland to Klamath Falls, said he mainly wants clean restrooms and a safe atmosphere when he stops along the highway. The Oak Grove stop, he said, didn’t seem too shabby.
“I haven’t stopped here very often, but when I have, they’ve always been kept pretty well,” he said, adding that he’d like to see a coffee stand set up to help him with long trips, such as the 10-hour round trip he was making to Klamath Falls and back.
As of this month, Oregon Travel Experience now manages every Oregon Department of Transportation rest area along Interstate 5 and Interstate 84, including the north and southbound Gettings Creek rest areas south of Springfield at milepost 178 and the north and southbound Oak Grove rest areas.
The nine newly designated sites are the second phase of 20 rest areas assigned to Oregon Travel Experience management under Senate Bill 1591 in 2012. The first 11 came under the group’s operation in January 2013.
The state-funded group’s annual budget for its 29 rest areas is $6.55 million, which mainly funds its on-site employees, landscape and janitorial contractors and facility supplies. The transportation department formerly budgeted $3 million a year to manage the properties.
On average, Nash said, the new services cost 25 cents per rest area visitor.
“They are owned by the people of the state of Oregon,” Nash said of the rest areas. “We want them to be welcoming for people who aren’t from the state, but we also want the people of Oregon to be proud of the rest areas that we have.”
In addition to managing rest areas, Oregon Travel Experience also helps drivers find services through the blue-background business logo signs along highways, and administers Oregon’s historical markers and heritage tree programs.
The state highway fund will support the group through 2015, said Nash, who added that the group may pursue alternative funding after that time.
In some states, rest areas are popular sites for corporate sponsorship or vending machine revenue, he said, and he and his team are examining those models as well as other possibilities.
Nash said the group hopes to expand to more rest areas in the future, though he didn’t have specific locations in mind.
ODOT spokesman Dave Thompson said Oregon Travel Experience offers drivers a level of service that his ODOT team lacked the employees and budget to provide.
“We treated rest areas as more of a ‘come visit for the short amount of time you want to visit, and then move on,’” he said. “They want to treat them as much more.”
Information from: The Register-Guard, https://www.registerguard.com
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