If you've ever gone on a long road trip, down a highway like Interstate 95, you know that sometimes the rest areas can be a somewhat-less-than-pleasant experience. They are often very dirty, boring, small, and uninteresting. If you've ever wondered why that is, you have to look at who's in charge of them.
Since 1960, federal law has seriously restricted what commercial activity rest stops can have. Aside from some vending machines, maps, and advertising brochures, not much else has been allowed at these roadside rest stops. However, under President Donald Trump's proposed infrastructure plan, that could change. Some previews of what could be coming.
Richard Geddes, scholar of infrastructure policy, writes in The Wall Street Journal that rest stop law was originally designed to protect local businesses along the highways from competition at rest areas. But since then the economy has changed, and sit-in restaurants have largely been replaced by fast food chains.
Mr. Trump’s plan would allow rest areas to be converted into valuable revenue-producing assets. Many are strategically located with easy on- and offramps, sidewalks, streetlights and restrooms already installed. Adding restaurants and shops would be inexpensive and profitable. The renovated stops could also offer amenities such as electric-vehicle charging stations.
Some rest stops are already thriving because they fall outside of the law’s purview.
The privately owned Iowa 80 Truckstop, for one, is located near the interstate, just off an exit ramp. It hosts almost 5,000 visitors each day and features 900 parking spaces, a movie theater, dentist, barber, library, showers and a dog wash.
Or look at rest stops in Delaware, New Jersey and other places that were inaugurated before 1960 and grandfathered in under the new rules. They operate through concessions with private companies. The success of this approach is illustrated by two newly renovated rest stops in Maryland that are exempt from normal restrictions, Maryland House and Chesapeake House. They are fully refurbished thanks to a $56 million investment by a private partner, and the state estimates that the renovated structures support 575 jobs.
Imagine if the 1,200 other rest stops in the country also had the ability to grow their operations, to have more to offer travelers when they stop. Maryland House and Chesapeake House are state of the art facilities with lots to offer. Why is that growth potential still being thwarted by law?
Geddes makes the case for commercializing these rest stops, as they will be much more well-maintained, and create more tax revenue from increased economic activity. Travelers win with better facilities, and the states can win with more tax revenue to take care of other infrastructure needs. Is that a plan we can all get behind?