|"Only dull people are brilliant at breakfast"
|"The liberal soul shall be made fat, and he that watereth, shall be watered also himself."
-- Proverbs 11:25
New Mexico is the most recent case in a rash of rest-stop closures that has affected states from Vermont to California. Facing enormous budget deficits, many states have raided transportation funds, forcing them to shut down all but the most necessary of operations. For Arizona, Louisiana and Virginia, the shuttering of roadside rest stops has become one of the most visible signs of the current budget crisis.
The disparity is due to a 1956 federal law aimed at protecting restaurants and gas stations located just off the exits of a growing Interstate highway system. The federal law bans the selling of food or fuel — or anything not sold from a vending machine — at rest areas on Interstates built after 1960. By that time, states in the Northeast and parts of the Midwest had already built turnpikes and other major highways with commercialized rest stops, which were allowed to continue operating.
Today, the issue reaches far beyond the number of restrooms on the highways. It’s also a matter of safety. Money spent on keeping rest stops open can mean less money for snow plows, road maintenance and highway crash response. Additionally, rest areas serve as a place for weary drivers to pull over and take a break from time behind the wheel. If many of them are closed, that means more tired eyes on the road, and for longer periods of time.
Millions of dollars at stake
States that aren’t allowed to lease rest-area space to businesses have to pay millions of dollars each year to clean and maintain the facilities. Georgia, for example, spent $4.5 million in 2008 to run 17 rest areas and nine welcome centers. Last summer, the state closed two stops to save $300,000 on each of them. Now, the state is looking at more creative alternatives: Transportation officials announced plans this month to seek a private partner to maintain the rest stops in return for rights to sell advertising space and sponsorships.
In Virginia, rest stops have played an outsized role in the past two years’ budget debates. Following the budget crisis of 2009, the Virginia Department of Transportation closed 19 of the state’s 42 rest stops, saving nearly half a million dollars on each of them. The move caused such uproar that Bob McDonnell, then a Republican candidate for governor, campaigned on a promise to reopen them all in the first three months of his term. As governor, he made good on that promise this year, but critics noted that rest stops got more money at the same time that K-12 education, health care and safety-net services were seeing cuts.
Increasingly, states subject to the 1956 ban have been lobbying the federal government for permission to commercialize rest stops and turn them from a cost into a revenue source. California, Oregon and Washington State have appealed to the U.S. Department of Transportation for help. The latest effort came from Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, who in February wrote a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Arizona’s congressional delegation asking that they work to repeal the federal restrictions. “This law exemplifies how an outdated federal regulation places a heavy hand on states,” she wrote.
But the states haven’t gotten much traction in Washington. A bill in Congress that would have lifted the federal ban, introduced last year by U.S. Rep. Frank R. Wolf of Virginia, was defeated amidst heavy lobbying from the fast-food industry. The topic has come up in the much larger debate surrounding the reauthorization of the nation’s surface transportation program, but that bill is stuck in Congress and has little hope of moving anytime soon.
In Delaware, however, the story couldn’t possibly be more different. Last month, Delaware unveiled a sparkling new 42,000-square foot welcome center on the busy Interstate 95 corridor. Not only did Delaware not spend a dime constructing what amounts to a $35 million mini-mall in the highway median. The rest stop actually makes Delaware money. The state’s contract with HMSHost, a company that runs retail operations at many airports, gives Delaware a percentage of revenues from sales of gas, food and other goods — at least $1.6 million per year for 35 years.
There’s always been a difference between the highly commercialized highway rest areas in the Northeast and those in the South and West, where the stops often are little more than parking lots with bathrooms and perhaps some vending machines. But the contrast has never been more stark than it is now. The states with commercialized rest stops like Delaware are free to find ways to milk them for more and more revenue. Meanwhile, the states without commercialization are coming to see highway rest areas as a financial drain they might just as well do without.