Privatize road-side rest areas for better service

A few years ago, when the Arizona Department of Transportation was running on red ink, they closed most of the rest areas on state highways.  That, of course, made many people mad.  Many areas have since been reopened. A solution to the funding problem would be to license private companies to run the rest areas.

The Arizona Daily Star reports a step in that direction has been taken.  “A new deal approved by the Department of Transportation will pay Tennessee-based Infrastructure Corp. of America $18.3 million over five years to tend the rest areas, and allows the company to sell sponsorships for each rest area, as well as commercial advertising space inside each of them.”

But that’s just a baby step.  Why not have private companies take over the rest areas and run businesses there to make the areas not just places to pee, but provide other services as well.

I have driven through much of the United Kingdom. There the privately run “motor service areas”  feature gas stations, restaurants, variety stores like our Circle-Ks, and often inexpensive motels.

Why can’t Arizona do that?

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5 comments

  1. It is the federal government that prevents Arizona’s highway rest areas from being privatized. Federal laws are quite limiting on what states can do with rest areas. ADOT leaders continue to fight for flexibility in how we can operate the state’s highway system, including rest areas. For now, this public-private partnership agreement, which includes revenue sharing for sponsorship, is the only option available under newly enacted federal rules.

    — Tim Tait, ADOT
    ttait@azdot.gov

  2. The Tucson Citizen recently asked why Arizona can’t hire private companies to run businesses out of the state’s rest areas.

    The answer is simple: the federal government decided 50 years ago that commercial rest areas — those that sell food, fuel or other retail products – are a bad idea.

    When Congress created the Interstate Highway System in 1956, community leaders feared that local businesses, jobs, and tax bases would shrink as truck drivers and motorists bypassed their cities and towns. As a result, Congress prohibited commercial development on the interstate right-of-way as a way to encourage commercial development along the
    interstate.

    Today, in the few states operating commercial rest areas (that were in existence prior to the 1956 law) there are 50 percent fewer businesses at interstate exits, according to a University of Maryland study.

    The Arizona Department of Transportation previously tried — and failed — to overturn this federal law. In 2010, ADOT proposed that states should compete with small-town businesses, siphoning jobs and customers to fix state budget shortfalls by establishing commercial rest areas along the interstate right-of-way.

    ADOT’s plan would have drained local businesses of customers, jobs and local tax revenues by putting established businesses in direct competition with the state. At the same time, it would have given the state an unfair competitive advantage by granting the state direct access to highway motorists.

    Furthermore, Congress resoundingly rejected an amendment to overturn this federal prohibition on commercial rest areas when it reauthorized the last highway bill, voting 86 to 12 against granting state governments the ability to set up shop directly along the interstate right-of-way and giving states a major advantage over the travel plazas, truckstops, gas stations, convenience stores and restaurants that already operate at the exit interchanges.

    Congress clearly made the right decision. Today, this policy continues to promote a vigorous competitive environment in Arizona: Nearly 1,200 businesses are located within a quarter mile of an interstate highway, employing more than 31,000 people.

    Despite claims that commercial rest areas represent a positive public-private partnership, the reality is they represent state-controlled monopolies on travelers’ food, beverage, retail and fuel purchases because they alone will enjoy the best, easiest-to-access locations. Well-established local businesses that rely on motorists exiting the interstates would no longer be able to compete.

    Tiffany Wlazlowski

    NATSO
    Representing America’s truckstops and travel plazas

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