If you’ve ever taken a long road trip on a federal interstate, you might have had reason to stop at one of the nation’s nearly 3,000 rest areas. Built starting in the 1950s as part of the Interstate Highway System, these stops were intended to provide a safe, convenient spot for travelers to go to the bathroom, eat a picnic lunch, or take a break from the weariness of the road.
They are also, with very few exceptions, remarkably dull. Your typical rest stop has some bathrooms, a soda machine, park benches and maybe a few travel brochures in a dusty display. Other than that, there just isn’t a lot going on. In some cases, the abandoned feel of rest stops has made them a locus for crime, and it generally makes them less appealing than they could be.
The desolate nature of interstate highway rest areas is no accident. In fact, federal law prohibits any commercial activity at these stops, with only a few narrow exceptions like the ubiquitous vending machines. Originally imposed to prevent competition for the few pre-existing private rest stops, the ban on commercial activity has survived long past its useful life.
The feds enforce the rules strictly. When New York State included “I Love New York” messages on signage along the Long Island Expressway, they soon found themselves slapped down by the federal government over a related set of rules that only allow highway signs to offer directional and navigational information to drivers. More recently, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, has been embroiled in a tussle with Federal Highway Administration over the “Taste NY” program, which allows farmers markets and other local merchants to set up shop at New York State Thruway rest stops, in violation of the federal law in portions of the thruway that also serve as Interstate 87 and Interstate 90.
Not all federal highway rest stops are boring. The Iowa 80 truck stop, located along Interstate 80 off exit 284, bills itself as the world’s largest truck stop. It features restaurants, a convenience store and service station, an automotive showroom, 24-hour showers, a business center, barbershop, movie theater and even a dentist office. The difference: Iowa 80 isn’t subject to the federal ban.
There’s a simple way to bring rest areas back to life. It involves making common cause with an emerging technology that, at first blush, doesn’t seem connected with highway rest areas: the electric car.
The last few years have seen a significant increase in the use of electric vehicles. Sales of electric vehicles rose 37 percent last year, with cumulative sales of 159,132. Increased demand for electric vehicles has been driven by everything from falling costs to growing consumer concern about climate change.
Despite these gains, widespread use of electric vehicles is held back by a lack of accompanying infrastructure. As with gasoline-powered vehicles, electric vehicles can only drive so long before their battery drains down and needs to be recharged. Charging stations, however, remain few and far between. The relatively small number of electric vehicles sold to date simply hasn’t yet produced the necessary demand.
Imagine if you had to hunt to find a gas station rather than finding them on most street corners. Without the security of knowing you can fill up your tank whenever you need to, owning a car that runs on gasoline would be a lot less valuable. A similar problem faces the owner of an electric vehicle today, as charging stations for electric cars remain sparse.
There is a common solution to these two problems. Whatever the original merits of protecting pre-existing facilities from competition, after nearly 70 years of changing population patterns, any legitimacy of the federal policy is long gone. Congress should allow commercial activity at rest stops that offer electric-vehicle charging stations. Opening up rest stops to ordinary commercial activity would attract customers for electric vehicle charging and vice versa. It might even make family road trips a little more fun.
Image by Alissala