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A welcome withdrawn in S. Jersey

Suppose you heard about a state-run highway rest area where the staff dispenses tourist information, talks motorists through road crises and once saved a life.

Suppose you heard about a state-run highway rest area where the staff dispenses tourist information, talks motorists through road crises and once saved a life.

Where the grounds - on I-295 North in Carneys Point, Salem County - are as meticulously well-tended as a corporate campus.

Where visitors from Austria, New Zealand, Phoenix, Richmond, Va., and elsewhere are so wowed by the pathogen-blocking, microbe-killing cleanliness of the bathrooms that hundreds have recorded their gratitude in a rest-area journal.

You might reward the high-achieving crew with a plaque and bonuses, even type up a news release to apprise the world of this driver's Valhalla.

The budget-cutters at the New Jersey Department of Transportation, though, have a different plan: They're shutting the place down.

"It's just a stupid, embarrassing idea," said Democratic Assemblyman John J. Burzichelli, in whose district the stop is located. "This is not a wise way to save money."

The little Eden known as the Deepwater Rest Area, open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., sits between Exits 2 and 4. There is no Exit 3 - you can't blame NJDOT for that one.

It's near the Delaware Memorial Bridge, and serves as an unofficial welcome center to road warriors barreling northbound into New Jersey.

The place has tourism brochures, snack machines, pay phones (a rarity these days), truly stunning restrooms and, most important, Deborah Wolfe, guardian angel and human Fodor's guide to the delights and mysteries of the Garden State.

"We're an open door," said Wolfe, 52, of nearby Pilesgrove, as snow flew and dazed motorists trooped into her clean, well-lighted place. "The road is lonely and scary, and I'm here to help."

But not for long. "Budgetary constraints" will force DOT to close the facility on Jan. 25, says DOT spokeswoman Erin Phalon. The annual savings will be roughly $60,000.

Wolfe and her 10 colleagues - who say they learned of the closing from the media - will be relocated, Phalon said.

The department also will shutter a rest area off Route 80 in Knowlton, Warren County, garnering the state an additional $50,000.

There are 28 rest areas in New Jersey operated by the DOT, which does not have jurisdiction over the state's toll roads. Only two have bathrooms - Knowlton and Deepwater. By the end of January, that doesn't give motorists a lot of options, Phalon acknowledged.

"If the coffee kicks in at the wrong time, that's a problem," Burzichelli said. "Only so many people can get off the highway and use a McDonald's restroom at the same time."

Under orders from the governor to save money, NJDOT says it has little choice.

"If DOT had unlimited funding, we would keep it open," Phalon said.

When the time comes, the center will be locked and the outdoor snack machines and phones yanked. The only thing people will be able to do at the rest area then is, well, rest.

"You've got to have a welcome mat out off the bridge, not a 'Closed for Business' sign," Burzichelli said. "It's counterproductive to promoting tourism for the state. You do this to save $60,000 and you cut off your nose to spite your face."

The idea is also not going down well with Deepwater's constituency, the motorists.

"This will be a loss for everybody," said Warren Moon (not the former NFL quarterback), a mortgage broker heading to Trenton from his home in Fairfax, Va. "And there's no other rest area on the road."

"This is the first stop in Jersey," said John Carpenter (not the director), a government construction worker from Washington Township. "People really need this."

They certainly have in the past.

Wolfe, who has worked at Deepwater for 10 of its more than 30 years, reminisced the other day about the well-to-do woman on her way to gamble in Atlantic City who hemorrhaged near the rest area. Wolfe and the crew called 911 and probably saved her life.

And the elderly man who pulled into Deepwater in the summer of 2006 and was unable to find his way back to the highway. The fog of Alzheimer's - what he had so long feared - was settling in, he realized.

The motorist called his son and slept in the car until morning, when the young man arrived.

"That night was the end of everything he was used to," Wolfe recalled. "His sister had Alzheimer's and he knew he was getting sick, and that he could no longer drive. He said he'd have to sell his home in Florida and move in with his son in Jersey. He was upset."

Wolfe and the others stayed with the man all night, offered to get him food, kept him as calm as possible.

"That night, it got emotional," Wolfe said. "Then he left the next day and we don't know what happened to him."

Emotion has coursed through Deepwater, as evidenced by the entries penned by motorists in the rest-area journal:

"Wedding!!" "I'll be famous one day." "I love him." "Lost but now amok." "I have been waiting for this moment all my life." "Eloping!!!" "I am from the subjugated state of Southern Cameroons. If you can . . . help us!"

Soon, of course, motorists' voices will go unheard.

"This is such a loss," fumed Dorothy Skoke, a visitor from College Park, Md. "Is there a way we can vote to keep it open?"

Apparently not. Burzichelli said he suggested privatizing Deepwater. But NJDOT is prohibited by federal regulation from hiring a non-government operator on an interstate, Phalon said.

So Deepwater will likely close with no reprieve from the governor.

"Please keep it open," a motorist wrote in a recent journal entry. "The bathrooms are the most pleasant ones I have ever had the pleasure of going to."