MONTEAGLE, Tenn. — Truck drivers felt the drought’s pinch last summer when the state shut down Interstate 24 rest areas on Monteagle Mountain, so they headed for the local truck stop instead.
“During the summer we had a lot more people stopping,” said Martha Bailey, who has worked for 18 years at the Monteagle Truck Plaza.
“They all would ask why the rest areas were closed,” Mrs. Bailey said. The answer — “drought” — often launched conversations about the dry weather throughout the Southeast, she said.
The Tennessee Department of Transportation closed the rest areas near the Monteagle exit Sept. 24 at the city’s request, officials said. The rest areas were the city’s single biggest water customer at 500,000 gallons a month, Monteagle Mayor Charles Rollins said last summer.
The drought hasn’t broken and the state won’t reopen the rest areas until city leaders say there’s enough water, said TDOT spokeswoman Jennifer Osborne-Flynn.
Grundy County is applying for a grant to help fund a water line from Monteagle to the Tennessee River at South Pittsburg, officials said.
When the rest areas shut down, Mrs. Bailey’s daughter Erin Hovack said truckers streamed to the plaza to find another drought-forced cutback.
“They were really mad that they couldn’t take a shower,” Mrs. Hovack said.
Monteagle water supplies recovered enough this fall to allow the plaza’s showers to operate and trucks filled the lot again, they said.
Rest area workers are still on site attending to administrative, security and maintenance duties, Ms. Osborne-Flynn said. A nearby truck check station doesn’t offer a water supply and will remain open, she said
Lonnie Reed, a truck driver from Corbin, Ky., said truckers who don’t know about the plaza might spend too much time behind the wheel looking for a spot to stop.
“It makes it bad when there’s no place to get off the road,” Mr. Reed said. “You run out of hours and you start looking for a place to pull off.
“If you can’t get off, that’s about a $200 fine,” he said of truck driver regulations. He said the plaza stop keeps him on schedule and out of trouble with “the DOT.”
Truck driver Jacky Wynn, of Jennings, Fla., said truckers are glad to have someplace to stop in Monteagle.
“When I pull the hill (Monteagle Mountain) I always stopped at the rest areas to cool off,” Mr. Wynn said. “Now, I pull off here.”
Other travelers head for the Kangaroo Express market near the exit, said Steve Ferreira, senior vice president of administration for North Carolina-based parent company The Pantry Inc.
“There seems to be a lot more traffic from people who are stopping in just to use the restroom,” Mr. Ferreira said.
“Of course, they’ll pick up a drink or something while they’re there and that’s been good,” he said. “I wouldn’t say it’s been anything meaningful or significant, but there has been an increase in activity.”
Monteagle Public Works Director Jim Boynton said summer forecasts for only half the normal rainfall for the year means continued supply problems for the town.
“The council has said to keep (the rest areas) closed until we can ascertain our water position,” Mr. Boynton said.
While the shutdown might draw some traffic to the interstate-area businesses, the rest of town continues to suffer from the lack of visitors, he said.
“We know people just pass the rest areas by and they don’t stop here. Economically, this drought is hurting us,” he said.
BY THE NUMBERS
Visitors to the Monteagle rest areas during August 2007.
69,000: Eastbound rest area
77,000: Westbound rest area
Source: Tennessee Department of Transportation
Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...