by Byron Schlomach, Ph.D.
Governor Jan Brewer recently sent a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Arizona’s congressional delegation asking for a change in federal law to allow private companies to operate rest stops on interstate highways. Federal law prevents “automotive service stations or other commercial establishments for serving motor vehicle users to be constructed or located on the rights-of-way of the Interstate System.” Right now, 13 of the state’s 18 roadside rest stops are closed as part of the state’s efforts to save money. They could be re-opened sooner if Governor Brewer’s recommendation were adopted.
In exchange for maintaining clean public restrooms, parking areas, and places for drivers to leave their refuse, companies could operate drink and snack concessions at roadside rest stops. This would be a source of revenue because private companies would have to bid for the privilege of operating within the confines of the rest stops. While federal law should be written to give states maximum flexibility, a state could restrict vendors to selling only food and beverages to minimize taxpayer-subsidized competition with other established businesses.
The federal government already allows for states to contract with private companies to provide vending machines and “motorist call boxes” at interstate rest stops. A change in federal law to allow private food-and-drink concessions would be a win for everybody. Well-written contracts would mean better-maintained facilities and more services for weary travelers.
One thing is for certain. Open roadside rest stops are better than closed roadside rest stops. If letting the private sector operate rest stops means they will stay open, then let the private sector prevail.
Dr. Byron Schlomach is an economist and the director of the Center for Economic Prosperity at the Goldwater Institute.