An overload of trash and vandalism has persuaded the Washington State Department of Transportation to close five Interstate 5 rest areas in the northern part of the state, beginning Friday.
Rest areas will close in both directions at Smokey Point between Marysville and Arlington and both directions at Custer, north of Bellingham. The southbound Silver Lake rest area in South Everett, which was already closed, will remain off-limits as well.
“We’ve seen broken toilets, broken sinks and stalls,” said WSDOT spokesperson Bart Treece, who noted maintenance crew members work in pairs for safety now. “They get yelled at by some people who are acting aggressively. Some people extend their stays and leave trash.”
Shutdowns will last at least three months and will be reevaluated in early 2022, the agency announced.
Morgan Balogh, assistant regional administrator, said in a statement that “we need to shift our resources moving into the winter months.”
WSDOT staff shortages are partly to blame, despite its biennial budget of $6.7 billion for 2019-21.
Normally, four full-time workers maintain the Smokey Point and South Everett rest areas, but currently there’s one employed there, Treece said. That’s part of a 32-person shortage in maintenance workers in northwest Washington, caused in part when fears of recession led to a hiring freeze early in the COVID-19 pandemic.
He encourages high school graduates or others needing work to apply at wsdotjobs.com. The Everett rest area job is listed at $43,480 to start, with $52,628 top pay.
Rest-stop closures present a hassle and potential safety hazard for drivers.
Roberta Ewing, a Skagit County resident in her 70s, said she’ll try driving to medical appointments in Seattle without a restroom break, which “is going to be nasty.” On the way home, the closures mean skipping her chance for a catnap after tiring procedures. But she worries more about truck drivers losing their rest area.
“There’s a certain humanity, you have to keep available. The services have to be provided,” Ewing said. “That’s a long distance between Seattle and Canada to go without stopping.” A few others said they’ll seek restrooms at fast-food joints near interchanges.
Ewing said she’s never seen rest stops trashed, and that she’s walked up to maintenance attendants to thank them for good work.
But another Snohomish County traveler mentioned filthy conditions in August, including sewage around the crowded RV waste-disposal areas, and suggested tighter State Patrol enforcement. Under state codes, it’s illegal for people to linger more than eight hours at a rest area, and parked vehicles will be towed after 48 hours.
As of noon Thursday, the two Smokey Point stops were cleared of litter and sported trimmed lawns, just before WSDOT hopes to keep them pristine using barricades. Crews were diverted from road maintenance to fix the rest areas, Treece said.
So far, there’s no plan to block the other 43 of WSDOT’s 48 rest stops for winter. However, the Gee Creek rest areas along I-5 northbound and southbound in Clark County will close Oct. 18-22 because of low staffing, Treece said.
WSDOT says it’s preparing to reopen the RV dump station northbound at Smokey Point in the next few weeks.
WSDOT has previously mentioned figures of $665,000 for statewide graffiti removal in 2018, while roadside trash removal is estimated at $4 million annually. Those costs take a bite out of Washington state's $519 million highway maintenance fund.
Last year, WSDOT complained about an increase in illegal dumping — not just in rest areas — by travelers tossing refuse by the roadside, perhaps to avoid dump fees or closed landfills.
Rest-area damage and crime are occasional problems around the country, prompting studies about how to change the designs, add retail shops to raise money for DOTs or maybe hire private companies to operate rest stops.
The American Association of State and Highway Officials (AASHTO) hasn't heard about any rash of closed rest-areas this fall in other states, "so it may be an isolated occurrence," a spokesperson said.
WSDOT's Treece described Friday's closures as interim steps until staffing levels improve.
Any permanent closures would need federal permission because interstate standards typically mandate a rest area every 60 miles, a state planning manual says.