Politics & Government

Bring back ‘free coffee’ signs for rest areas, lawmaker says

A state lawmaker wants to ensure drivers don’t miss out on the free coffee at Washington’s public rest stops.

Citing concerns for drivers’ safety, state Sen. Kirk Pearson, R-Monroe, filed legislation this week to reinstate road signs advertising free coffee at state-run rest areas.

Thirty-seven rest areas along Washington freeways offer free coffee, according to the state Department of Transportation. Nonprofit groups and volunteers supply the coffee, accepting donations from those who are willing to contribute.

But WSDOT in 2012 stopped replacing worn or damaged freeway signs that once told drivers when the coffee was available. Now, no signs are left, according to the agency.

Pearson said that has not only hurt the nonprofit groups that serve coffee and collect donations at rest areas, it’s also depriving drivers of the opportunity to benefit from a complimentary caffeine jolt.

Pearson’s bill, Senate Bill 5068, says the state’s free coffee program at rest areas “supports the safety mission of rest areas by keeping highway travelers more alert.”

“If you’re tired, it’s a safety hazard,” Pearson said Wednesday. “People driving long distances and everything, sometimes it’s good to stop and relax instead of pushing yourself those extra few miles.”

Pearson added that the groups that provide the coffee have seen a drop in donations without the signs.

WSDOT officials say they stopped replacing the roadside coffee signs because they were worried about the safety of rest area volunteers, who were responsible for flipping the signs open and closed.

Often, members of the coffee-serving groups would go out to edge of the freeway to flip the signs open at the beginning of the day and return to close them when coffee service ended, WSDOT spokeswoman Barbara LaBoe said.

WSDOT crews have seen volunteers acting in ways they deem unsafe, she added, such as driving against the flow of traffic on an on-ramp to reach the roadside signs.

“The volunteers have to walk very close to oncoming traffic on the shoulder. Sometimes they have to reach up to flip the signs up and down,” LaBoe said.

The state had electronic coffee signs operating at one rest stop on the edge of Pearson’s district, LaBoe said, but when the signs broke down, the agency decided it couldn’t afford the $12,000 to replace them.

Pearson’s bill would set a deadline of Aug. 1 for WSDOT to restore all signs, electronic or otherwise, that formerly advertised free coffee at rest areas.