By Andy Warcaba
Safety, Comfort and Convenience – Future of Interstate Rest Areas
There is a national funding crisis in our Nation that is making it extremely difficult for state transportation professionals to meet the maintenance and safety needs of Rest Area Users traveling on the Federal Interstate System. Many of the Department’s of Transportation have already responded by closing several rest areas and more are in the process of planning to make additional service cuts in the near future. These types of actions will impact motorist safety and will further exacerbate the ever-increasing problem of inadequate truck parking.
The origin of providing specific areas for motorists to find comfort and relax along major highways in the United States dates back to a provision in the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1938 that stated “the States with the aid of Federal Funds may include such sanitary and other facilities as may be deemed necessary to provide for the suitable accommodation of the public . . . “The intent of the Act was to increase motorist safety and comfort by providing facilities for stopping and resting.” Subsequent legislation enacted throughout the years placed prohibitions on commercializing rest areas with the exception of toll roads that receive no federal aid but carry the interstate emblem and a few rare cases in which the private rest area was developed as part of a toll road, but the tolls were later removed (e.g., along I-95 in Connecticut).
The United States Congress should accept the recommendations of highway experts such as FHWA and AASHTO, to permit the states to study the impacts of commercializing rest areas or identifying other revenue-producing or service enhancements on the National Interstate System. In 2003, President George W. Bush’s federal highway funding reauthorization bill contained a clause allowing states to start experimenting with privatized rest areas on Interstate highways. The clause was fiercely resisted by the National Association of Truck Stop Operators (NATSO) and others, who argued that allowing such rest areas would shift revenue to state governments (in the form of lease payments) that would have gone to local governments (in the form of property and sales taxes).
Commercialization could also offer a platform for new technologies such as truck idling and the implementation of alternative fuel options which would promote interstate travel with ”green” vehicles, as well as contribute to the national initiative to reduce dependence on foreign energy sources. The current level of service being provided by off-highway food and fuel operators, in many cases, does not compare with the enhanced design characteristics of the rest areas within the right-of-way of the Federal Highway System (including ADA facilities). This is especially evident in the area which causes the majority of people to stop at a rest area: to use the restroom. The individual states offer rest area facilities on a 24/7 basis and these facilities are used by millions of visitors with no offset for the high cost of operating and maintaining these services. This action could result in the establishment of rent-based public-private partnerships that would provide a revenue stream to the DOT’s that could be used to fund needed infrastructure improvements as well as an opportunity for the private sector to expand their market share, provide local jobs (especially for rural areas) and contribute to local tax bases.
Support for Commercialization
Motorists expect modern, clean, and safe stopping places that are open 24 hours per day, seven days per week and situated at regular intervals along the Interstate Highway System. Many off-road facilities do not provide a 24/7 operation. Conventional Rest Areas provided by the states’ Departments of Transportation and found within the Federal right-of-way accommodate these motorist expectations. They offer a quick route for motorists to find restrooms, refuge/safety and limited snack and beverage services at any time of the day or day of the week. Commercial Travel Stops provided by the private sector and found outside of the Federal right-of-way at interchange/exit points of the Interstate Highway System also accommodate these motorist expectations. While these commercialized facilities offer motorists a choice in finding restrooms, safety, fuel and an expanded array of food and beverage choices at varying times of the day, the motorist is required to exit the Interstate System in order to utilize these services. There is no DOT oversight regarding service offerings, quality or pricing.
The case can be made that, in many instances, the off-highway commercial facilities provided by the private sector do not replicate all of the design, safety and maintenance amenities that the traveling public has come to expect and that the DOT’s are duty-bound to sustain as part of their rest area operations, e.g., expanded restroom facilities, clean sanitary facilities, ease of ingress/egress, expanded parking, and tourist information.
This statement can be supported by the fact that nationally millions of motorists stop at these non-commercial rest areas even though these facilities do not offer fuel and the expanded array of food and beverage choices. The high usage of these rest areas requires the individual state DOT’s to expend millions of dollars annually for operations and maintenance costs. The DOT’s do not have a means to be reimbursed for their costs of continuing their rest area operations. As the cost of building, operating and maintaining rest areas continues to escalate, the resources available to the State Department’s of Transportation have declined in the face of competing priorities.
The consensus amongst many of the states’ Departments of Transportation including the Federal Highway Administration and The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) is that rest areas should be commercialized. The support to commercialize rest areas has also been documented in motorist surveys when motorists were asked if they would utilize these facilities. Rest areas provide a safe refuge whenever weather, visibility or roadway conditions make driving conditions hazardous.
Opposition to Commercialization
The major point of contention expressed relative to commercializing rest areas within the right-of-way of the Interstate Highway is that these types of facilities will siphon sales from commercial travel stops that are located at or near the exits located off of the right-of-way of the Interstate Highway. The argument is that no new sales will be made at the new commercialized facilities but that overall sales will just be re-distributed along the Interstate route. An industry advocacy group has stated that a Study conducted by the University of Maryland in 2003 indicated that as many as half of the nearby interchange-based businesses would close as a result of commercialization. This group further suggests that interchange-based businesses cannot compete with commercialized rest areas that would be located within the right-of-way.
There have been significant cultural, demographic and operational changes that have occurred since the time when the majority of the original rest areas were built and laws were written. As the motorist service’s industry continues to mature and respond to meet the dynamics of a changing user profile, transportation agencies and off-road service providers are faced with many challenges. It is generally felt that there are too many rest area locations given the performance of present-day vehicles, the needs of the traveling public and the costs of operating these facilities. In addition, it is felt that there are too many single-sided-single-access locations and consideration should be given to replacing them with bi-directional or dual access designs.
The key to increasing the number of public/private partners and producing effective results is for each partner to understand and appreciate the nature and scope of the opposite party’s potential risks and rewards, as well as its own, so that mutual success is achieved. There are components of rest areas operations that are specific to each individual and opportunities exist between the DOT Agencies and the private sector to work hand-in-hand to identify and develop the ideal solution for each party that will ultimately serve the needs and desires of the motoring public.
Several attempts over the past 20 years have been made by the state-level DOT’s to have national legislation enacted that would permit them to study the impacts of commercializing rest areas but these efforts have been unsuccessful. Without the benefit of this enabling legislation, the individual states will be required to operate and maintain their system of rest areas with funds received from tax revenues. On the other hand, if this legislation is given a chance, opportunities to create public/private partnerships can be developed to build commercial rest areas, close unneeded and underused rest areas and develop the methods to insure that modern standards are employed to keep the facilities properly maintained. If the enabling legislation is not passed, many of the states will aggressively continue closing and/or mothballing their rest areas under the ever-increasing cost of operating these facilities.
Andy Warcaba is founder of Andrew J. Warcaba & Associates, a professional services and management consulting firm specializing in the area of motorist-related public-private partnerships and is based out of Dixon, Illinois.