Originally created 02/10/01

Rest area closings irk motorists



Next week's impending closing of two parking areas along Interstate 20 in Aiken County is frustrating truckers and motorists who use the rest stop frequently.

They say the shutdown - slated for Thursday - will leave them with fewer options for resting or checking their vehicles.

State law requires trucker Robert Olson to check the tires on his 18-wheeler every two hours or 100 miles. Because he carries tankers with dangerous chemicals, his options for stopping places are limited. He figures he will soon be joining other truckers in searching for other locations.

"If this place isn't open, it's going to put more crowds at the next rest stop," Mr. Olson said Friday from the parking area, where he used a hammer to check the stability of his tires.

The parking areas slated for closing are located near mile marker 19 on the eastbound and westbound lanes. Other rest stops and welcome centers with bathroom facilities will not close.

The parking areas are being shut down as part of a statewide plan to reduce the opportunity for illegal and dangerous activities.

"We're glad to see it happen," said Lt. Michael Frank with the Aiken County Sheriff's Office. "It has been a source of illicit sexual activity in Aiken County."

Undercover officers have arrested dozens of men at the parking areas in Aiken County during the past several years. Officers have found men soliciting for sex or using a wooded area to engage in homosexual activity.

While the areas will be shut down - blocked by orange barrels and other barriers - motorists have plenty of alternatives for pulling over when they are hungry or drowsy, Lt. Frank said.

"In Aiken, there are at least two exits along the Interstate where drivers can stop for food, fuel and lodging. And if they don't want to stop there, they can drive a little farther to Augusta and find even a greater variety of services," he said.

But New Jersey traveler William Flock, who pulled into the parking area Friday with an extended RV and a car in tow, said his large load isn't that easy to manage.

"If this place had been closed, we would have had to find a supermarket parking lot or something," the retired farmer said. "It's got to be big or we can't get in it."

Mr. Flock, 80, was traveling with his wife to Georgia to visit relatives. He was ready to pull over near Lexington, but the parking areas there have already been shut down.

"We can't understand why they are closing them. There was no place for us to go," he said. "If you have a problem with something, you have no place to pull off."

Officials with the South Carolina Department of Transportation said 16 parking areas throughout the state began shutting down in January. Rest stops in Dorchester, Darlington, Jasper and Newberry counties will be shut down in the coming months.

In October, a task force studying crime at interstate rest areas in South Carolina recommended that Gov. Jim Hodges shut down the parking areas, saying they are no longer needed.

"While the work group understands the importance of providing opportunities for tired drivers to get off the road, it believes that there are sufficient state rest areas with facilities and private commercial operations available to provide comfort to weary drivers," the task force wrote.

Security will be stepped up at the remaining rest stops with bathroom facilities.

Reach Greg Rickabaugh at (803) 648-1395.