Open highway rest stops with private vendors

by Byron Schlomach, Ph.D.
Goldwater Institute
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.


  1. Jon Altmann, PC, State Committeeman LD11 says

    This idea for change is long overdue!

    Whoever put the original constraint on these Federal interstate highways should be made to drive 400 miles non-stop wearing adult diapers and drinking high caffeine content drinks the whole way.

  2. This is actually a good idea. Florida’s Turnpike is a well-managed system, and the rest stops offer two or three different restaurants and a couple of shops. But the model needs to be adjusted somewhat… existing private businesses in places like Cordes Junction and Picacho Peak would be devastated, so rest stops within X miles of these small towns would need to be maintained by the state and offer limited services.

  3. If the rest stops were privatized, they’d be open. Been fed up with the closed rest stops in AZ. It’s a LONG haul between exits on some of these stretches, and even with that soem exits have no services anyway, they’re just junctions to other routes. The taxpayers had money taken out of their pockets to build quite sturdy and extensive facilities … but the state can’t figure how to put the “SERVICE” into public services….they’re closed!

    A question for up there. Isn’t it likely existing private business in small towns might be interested in ownership of a highway reststop in addition to in-town business? Or were you thinking that the rest stops would be auctioned to big corporations?
    It would be then something to consider in how to design a fair system for local businesses to compete in purchasing any sites that are up for sale.

  4. Had to re-read that:
    “Right now, 13 of the state’s 18 roadside rest stops are closed as part of the state’s efforts to save money.”

    I have noticed that the swanky downtown decorative bauble known as the Phoenix light rail is still operating – and serving far far fewer people statewide than the rest stops would serve IF they were open. If a driver has to pull over and park because he’s too drowsy, there’s just the on/off ramps. Irresponsible budget games.

    Priorities priorities.

  5. Many states have grandfathered in exceptions to this restriction already. There are commercially operated rest stops along the Ohio and Pennsylvania turnpikes for example, both of which are interstates (but were in existence prior to being interstates).

  6. Commercial management for rest stops is fine in my view. Although the state needs to retain ownership of its own roads and highways.

  7. wanumba,
    You do understand voters here decided to fund light rail and even if it was shut down tomorrow the money couldn’t be used to fund state rest stops.

    The GOP run legislature could fund the rest stops if they wanted to. This is an entirely constructed problem.

  8. Of course. It’s tough though to run things now and the state has to raise taxes and everyone has to cut back and sacrifice because of all those years of Napolitano deficit spending and the Napolitano deficit she left behind when she quit.

    So, the whole state gets stiffed while Phoenix runs a light rail system it never needed and will never even break even on.

  9. Todd,

    No, he doesn’t get it. Apparently “the voters” = “Janet Napolitano”. That or Phoenix needs to fund the rest of the state or something. Maybe we should chip in and send him to civics class?

    It’s like that epsiode of “Family Guy” where Brian asks Peter “Do you even listen to yourself when you talk?” and Peter replies “I drift in and out”.

    wanumba’s the Peter Griffin of Sonoran Alliance.

  10. Are you kidding? You actually WATCH Family Guy?

    It’s SOUTH PARK at chez wanumba.
    “Respect mah authoritay!”

  11. Just what we need… if this passes we can look forward to pay toilets and tacky overpriced convenience stores at every stop. Joy!

  12. Ok, well written, but the guy above me lol. Ok, I forgot what I was going to say

  13. Thanks for taking the time to discuss this, I feel strongly about it and love learning more on this topic. If possible, as you gain expertise, would you mind updating your blog with more information? It is extremely helpful for me.

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