After an eight-month shutdown, the Interstate 40 rest areas near Benson have opened their doors.
The two rest stops, one on each side of the interstate, reopened Dec. 19. The N.C. Department of Transportation closed the rest stops in March to rebuild them.
The buildings the DOT tore down were 23 years old. Their replacements, designed to look like barns, are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The new look also includes picnic tables and landscaping.
The project “gave us a chance to modernize it,” said Steve Abbott, communications supervisor for the DOT.
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The new buildings showcase North Carolina’s agricultural history, Abbott said. The interior walls are wood, with small display cases holding photographs of farmers with their crops. Near the main bathroom building is a smaller building with vending machines.
In 2012, 719,000 people passed through the Benson-area rest stops, Abbott said. The year before, 850,000 visited.
By comparison, the Selma rest stops on Interstate-95, which has a higher traffic volume, had 1.1 million visitors in 2012, Abbott said. The DOT renovated those facilities in 2005.
Abbott said the Benson project didn’t increase the number of restrooms or the size of the rest stops, but it did make them nicer. “It’s not so much that we’re out to increase people showing up, but we’re going to make their visits better for them,” he said.
The new buildings have solar hot-water systems and LED lights. Both rest stops are open 24/7.
The construction cost $1.5 million; Calvin Davenport Inc. was the general contractor.
Ernie Brame is chairman of the Johnston County Tourism Authority and general manager of Kenly 95 Petro, a truckstop on I-95 near Kenly.
“I’m a retailer, I run a truck stop on I-95, so obviously I like to see private business fill as much of that need as possible,” Brame said. “But rest areas are a vital part of the United States’ interstate system. If we can provide free access to travelers to stop in and refresh and stay safe, that’s a really good thing.”
Brame said the rest stops are a chance to showcase Johnston County and get visitors to come back. “We realize we’re not a destination, as in you want to take your vacation here, but we want to be a place while you’re going through,” he said. “We want you to see what we have to offer and give us a try.”
Brame couldn’t say whether rest stops hurt nearby businesses that also cater to travelers. Each traveler’s situation is different – some are hungry, others need gas, some just want to use the restroom, he said.
“It depends on what your needs are at that particular moment,” Brame said.
Benson Mayor William Massengill said the rest stops likely take away from Benson business owners. “The rest area does keep people from probably stopping at other restaurants and places like that, so I wouldn’t say the rest area has a positive economic impact on Benson,” he said.
But the rest areas do give people a nice facility where they can learn about Benson, Massengill said. “If we educate people about things in Johnston County, they will come back in the future,” he said.
Massengill said he doesn’t hear concerns from business owners about the rest stops. “The rest area is there, and I think we just really need to look at ways that we can use it to promote Benson and the rest of Johnston County,” he said.
Patrick Mullen, 36, stopped at the eastbound rest area on Dec. 31 on his way from High Point to Wilmington. He had visited the rest stop once before.
“I just noticed that everything looks more vibrant and more bright,” Mullen said. “And definitely the different walls and the way they accented everything, it looks a lot nicer.”
Mullen said the displays could have done a better job of showcasing the county’s agricultural heritage. “But it’s definitely a very, very nice upgrade from some of the other ones I’ve seen that have not been upgraded yet,” he said.
Steven Miller, 48, was moving from Raleigh to Clinton on New Year’s Eve and made a pit stop at the eastbound rest area. He had visited the old facilities before.
“I love the changes,” he said. “I like the local history feel to it, the green. I’ve been watching it as I’ve been going back and forth, and I’ve really enjoyed seeing the solar panels, the structure, the green architecture and everything like that.”
Miller appreciates rest stops. “I’m an aging man; they’re very important to have along highways,” he said. “Especially since it’s something that gives you a chance to break, collect your thoughts and make sure you’re not having problems with driving.”
For instance, Miller used his Benson break to check his moving trailer. “It’s not a place you have to worry about being in a tourist trap or anything like that,” he said.