HOULTON, Maine — Kate Johnson, a Caribou resident, acknowledged recently that she doesn’t often take the time to travel.
When she does, it is often just a three-hour drive to Bangor or, during the Christmas season, a five-hour trip to Freeport for shopping.
During those trips, Johnson said, she has a ritual.
“I always stop at the rest area here,” she said, standing in the parking lot of the Tourist Information Center in Houlton, an hour south of Caribou. “It breaks up the trip and gives me a chance to stretch my legs and go to the bathroom.”
Since she is not a frequent traveler, Johnson said that she had “no idea” that the state had closed the rest stops on either side of Interstate 95 in Pittsfield.
“I didn’t know that, but I guess it makes sense,” she said. “I know a lot of people who never stop at rest areas. There are so many stores and restaurants along the roads now, you can always just stretch and go to the bathroom and things when you stop to have lunch or get a soda or something.”
Johnson’s rationale is shared by the Maine Department of Transportation. Last June, the DOT announced the closure of the Pittsfield rest areas, which consist of buildings on both sides of the highway, and also said that the department would privatize custodial services at five other rest areas along I-95 and I-295. All of those rest areas — in Kittery, Yarmouth, Hampden, Medway and Houlton — remain open.
The changes at these rest areas are part of a cost-cutting move designed to reduce the DOT’s budget. The Pittsfield closure eliminated 19 state positions, and DOT officials said it was projected to save more than $690,000 over the two-year budget period.
The Maine DOT continues to operate more than 50 rest areas throughout the state at a cost of approximately $2 million annually.
According to Mark Latti, spokesman for the DOT, the Pittsfield rest stops were selected for closure because other interstate rest areas are located in West Gardiner and Hampden. Along with that, 10 miles north of the two Pittsfield facilities at Exit 157 in Newport there are restaurants, convenience stores, restrooms and parking 24 hours a day. Similar services are available at Exit 133 in Fairfield.
The decision to close the Pittsfield rest areas was made despite the fact that the state spent $1.5 million in 2002-2003 to update the buildings and grounds of the facilities. Mike Burns, acting director for the DOT’s bureau of maintenance and operations, said it was costing the DOT more than $300,000 a year just to staff and maintain the rest areas and to repair damage done by those who used the facility.
“It was just getting to be too expensive,” he said.
Burns said the department is on track to see the $690,000 in savings that it had projected it would realize from the closure of the rest areas over a two-year budget period.
Latti said during a recent interview that the agency has fielded few complaints about the closure of the rest areas. Officials from the Maine Office of Tourism also said no one has complained to them about the closure of the rest areas.
In order to privatize the custodial services at five rest areas, companies were selected through the state’s competitive bidding process. Ten companies bid on the contracts, according to the DOT. Pegasus Cleaning Corp. of Buffalo, N.Y., was awarded the contract for the rest areas at Kittery and Yarmouth, and Bangor Abatement Inc. was awarded the contract for Hampden, Medway and Houlton. The companies maintain the outside grounds and the interiors of the buildings.
Closing rest areas is not unusual.
Aroostook County administrator Doug Beaulieu said that the state closed a rest area in Grand Isle on Route 1 and one in Madawaska Lake off Route 161 approximately two years ago.
Beaulieu said that he has heard no complaints about the closure of the Madawaska Lake rest area. The Grand Isle rest area has since been taken over by the town.
Latti said that there are no plans to close any more rest areas in the future.