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Rest Stops Get ‘Green’ Facelifts

POMPANO BEACH, Fla. - Heading south on Florida's Turnpike, one of the last pit stops near the end of the road is here at Milepost 65. Much like the seven other gas-and-food rest areas on the 312-mile toll road, the Pompano Service Plaza was built in the 1950s, got a makeover in the '80s and now looks like it badly needs a facelift.

It will be getting that and more when four of the eight service plazas on the turnpike are torn down and rebuilt and others remodeled.

The real stunner: They will be "green" and built to strict environmental standards.

Environmental consciousness is sprouting along one of the greatest symbols of America's love affair with the automobile: the turnpike.

The folks that help millions of cars and trucks move across the nation - big producers of greenhouse gas emissions - are slowly turning from environmental villains to green heroes. Using goats to keep roadside grass trimmed is one extreme used on a small scale in several states. More significant efforts focus on service plazas, gas stations and toll collections.

"The consciousness about greenhouse gas reductions is fairly new among departments of transportation," says Larry Yermack, president of Telvent Transportation North America, which develops tolling systems. "In the next few years, you're going to see lots and lots more."

Cars and light trucks produce 14% of greenhouse gas emissions, according to industry estimates. So turnpike and road authorities are embracing all things green:

Massachusetts wants to build a wind-turbine project on state land adjacent to its turnpike's Blandford Rest Area, near Springfield. "We want our highways and roads to be as green as they can be," said state Transportation Secretary James Aloisi when it was announced in April.

The Massachusetts Turnpike also uses biofuels in heating systems at maintenance depots and ultralow-sulfur diesel in generators and trucks. E-85 fuels - 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline - will be sold at four service plazas.

Headquarters of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission in Harrisburg was the first "green" state building in the Keystone State. About 10% of the turnpike's electricity is supplied by wind farms and more than 600 vehicles in its fleet use biodiesel.

The state also is rebuilding travel plazas. They will meet Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards, a respected certification by the U.S. Green Building Council.

Electronic toll collections, which cut down on toll booths, traffic backups and exhaust-spewing idling cars, now are being used by most toll agencies but still account for only about 60% of all toll transactions, according to Patrick Jones, executive director of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association.

"Tolling in general is becoming more green by virtue of using automatic toll collection," Jones says.

Another green benefit: The cost of paying tolls may reduce driving or encourage carpooling, says Steven Snider, CEO of Halifax Harbor Bridges, a toll authority in Nova Scotia.

The association's fall conference will focus on sustainability, social responsibility and energy conservation - a first for the trade group.

"The introduction of electronic toll collection has done two things: It's had a significant environmental impact and it has also helped us better use existing facilities," says Snider, who is organizing the conference.

In Florida, the greening effort has been spurred by Gov. Charlie Crist's campaign to reduce greenhouse gases and increase energy efficiency.

The turnpike is working with the University of Florida to study the use of solar energy at its Turkey Lake Service Plaza in Orange County.

When Florida's Turnpike signed a new concession contract last spring, it required the company to upgrade and rebuild the service plazas to comply with LEED standards. Areas USA, which runs concessions at major airports around the world, hired Zyscovich Architects, a Miami-based firm known for urban and green designs.

For many who travel Florida's Turnpike, the service plazas are "their first vision of what Florida is all about," says architect Bernard Zyscovich. "They're going to be places . . . more oriented to leave a lasting image."

What's in store: High ceilings and glass to let in natural light; an outdoor seating area landscaped with indigenous plants that don't require irrigation; non-toxic paints and adhesives; recyclable stones, tiles and wood made of native materials; video terminals and varied seating arrangements to break up the visual monotony; healthier food alternatives. The larger plazas will even have sit-down, full-service restaurants. "We think of it as an oasis," Zyscovich says.

In the late 1940s and early '50s, people drove on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and stopped to picnic in the median, says Robert Lang, director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech. "The car was seen as the thing that could bring you closest to nature. This is kind of a return-to-nature theme."

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