The Delmarva Peninsula is a 170-mile-long piece of land that hangs below Philadelphia. It is a water-dwelling animal, with its shoulders in the Delaware Bay, its feet and belly in the Chesapeake Bay, and its tail in the Atlantic.
Driving down this peninsula last May, my family stopped at a rest area near the small town of Smyrna, in Delaware, where two main roads, old U.S. 13 and the newer DE 1, cross paths. It was a particularly welcome oasis at the time, because we were trying to avoid restaurants during the pandemic. We ate the lunch we had packed at picnic tables spaced far apart under trees.
As we did so, I looked around the Smyrna Rest Area. The sheer scope of the place took my breath away. Green lawns stretched farther than I could see. There was an elaborate garden. And all this at a spot that isn’t even close to an interstate highway.
The Smyrna rest stop is 60 acres in size. It has a playground, a dog run with cages for both small and large dogs, and a network of walking trails. It is home to the Delaware Highway Memorial Garden, a circular brick path through flowers, with inlaid bricks that record the names of some of those who have lost their lives on Delaware roadways.
“I sometimes refer to it as a mini state park,” says the manager, Philip D. Hall. “If you come in with just a plan to use the restroom, you’re going to miss out.” Hall says he has locals who visit almost daily.
I couldn’t help wondering about the Smyrna oasis. I don’t know of any national standards that say what a rest stop is or isn’t supposed to be, but it seemed much nicer than most.
The Delaware state website says the Smyrna rest stop dates to 1937, when it “was little more than a picnic table and a wide spot in the road.” Since then, the state tells us in a small essay, it “has had many facelifts and re-births” and for a while it had a petting zoo. It also says the rest stop has “has two to three million visitors a year, and even hosts weddings.”
I wondered how accurate this estimate of visitors was. Hall said he couldn’t say how many visitors the facility had, but he did note that its guest book was signed 4,000 times last year. Hall manages a staff of 15 to 18 people, about half of them seasonal in summer months, when traffic is highest.
U.S. 13 and DE 1 are pretty much the only roads heading south and north down the peninsula. There are beach towns up and down the strip, and some drivers use this route to bypass Washington, D.C., as they make their way to and from Virginia and North Carolina.
Hall couldn’t provide me with his annual operating budget. So I asked his bosses at the Delaware Department of Transportation. After some back and forth by phone and by email, they said I would need to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. This surprised me, given that it is routine information, but I did so. I still have not heard anything in response.
For comparison's sake, I asked the Virginia Department of Transportation about its New Church Safety Rest Area/Virginia Welcome Center, 110 miles down U.S. 13 from Smyrna, just over the Maryland state line. It has one brick building, built in 1970, that sits on eight acres with a parking lot that holds 37 cars. It typically has two full-time staff members, and a monthly operating budget of $20,000 to $25,000. I did not have to file a FOIA request to get those numbers.
Of course, these are just two rest stops out of the thousands that exist all over the country, most managed by state DOTs. I couldn’t find any recent studies or even a listing of all the rest stops nationally. I did find some interesting research about the architecture of rest stops on interstates. But it’s pretty clear that Smyrna must be at or near the top when it comes to the luxury and expense of its facilities. Just based on staffing, the budget of the Smyrna Rest Area has to be many times higher than that of New Church in Virginia.
It bears mentioning that Smyrna is in Delaware, which is a tiny state, in both land area and population. Wilmington, the largest city and the place where President-elect Joe Biden delivered his victory speech, has a mere 70,000 people, the same as my neighborhood of Park Slope in Brooklyn.
Given all that, is the Smyrna rest stop worth the cost, whatever that might be, of its 60 acres with a big staff, gardens, dog runs and walking trails?
It was worth it to me on that afternoon in May. For the larger question, I will say we are a rich society, and perhaps a fancy rest stop off a major road, even a non-interstate, is an acceptable investment. I would only ask that we use this same frame of reference in judging the value of other modes of transportation and public services.
When it comes to public transit, whether it’s a streetcar line or an Amtrak train, we tend to ask what each individual expenditure contributes to the bottom line. We scrutinize the traffic on every transit line and ask whether it’s sufficient to stay in operation.
But we see highways as a complex network that needs to be treated as a whole. Rest areas are part of the package and aren’t expected to pay for themselves. Indeed, a wide array of taxes and revenues pay for our road system, and the gasoline tax and highway tolls are only a small portion of that. Apart from some carping by a relative few, we don’t usually worry much about this.
That’s the main reason why we have an amenity like the Smyrna rest stop. It’s a little out of balance, but I can live with that. I just wish we would apply some of the same generosity to the other pieces of our transportation system.
Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.