Archive for July, 2010

Commercial Rest Areas Devastate Local Communities

Thursday, July 29th, 2010

As a party with a clear interest in serving the needs of highway travelers, NATSO welcomed the Pew Institute’s recent examination of commercialized rest areas.

However, it’s imperative that state options to maintain highway safety and close gaping budget deficits be carefully considered from the perspective of all parties, especially the small towns that depend on traveler dollars.

The perception that adding food, fuel and other retail services to state rest areas is a silver bullet solution for closing huge budget deficits errs in regarding the option as a painless one.

There’s a reason Congress outlawed commercialization in 1960, and renewed it again and again during the ensuing 50 years. Research has shown that allowing states to develop and lease full-service rest areas along a highway would monopolize travelers’ business, starving the small enterprises, from truckstops to farm stands, which have sprouted near the exits.

A landmark study by the University of Maryland showed definitively that on sections of Interstate where commercial services are permitted at rest areas, nearly half as many exit-based businesses thrive. Nowhere is this demonstrated more dramatically than along Interstate-95, which runs through both Maryland and Virginia.

Maryland, which was grandfathered in and not subject to the prohibition, has two commercialized rest areas and only 201 businesses at the exit interchanges over 109 miles. Virginia, which does not have commercialized rest areas, has more than 858 exit-based businesses over 178 miles of I-95. Even taking into account the extra miles, the difference in commercial development along I-95 is striking, meaning more jobs, a healthier tax-base for local communities and more commerce for local communities and Virginians.

Adding commercial services to rest areas may add dollars to state coffers. But commercial rest areas merely redirect those revenues from town and county treasuries, which count on the property and income taxes from traveler-dependent businesses to provide essential services like sewer maintenance and police and fire protection. Reversing 50 years of federal policy would rob Small Town Peter to pay Statehouse Paul.

We also have to note that the dollars generated would hardly be the godsend the states suggest. Proceeds would amount to a few million dollars. But many of the states cited are facing budget deficits running to hundreds of millions, if not billions.

As much as we appreciate efforts to stimulate a dialogue, it is an incorrect assertion that commercializing rest areas would boost highway safety.

Studies have shown that truck drivers have fewer places to park and rest when states own and lease out rest areas along their highways. Like any other commercial landlord, states aim to maximize revenues by leasing space to big revenue-generators that can afford higher rents.

Parking spaces don’t fit that bill. On average, state-run facilities have two fewer parking spaces per mile than comparable operations located near the exits. Private, exit-based businesses provide more than 90 percent of all overnight parking.