Dark. Empty. Boring. A little dangerous at night.
These are not the words one wants to associate with road trips across America. But they are the words that come to mind when you stop at most of the roughly 1,200  Interstate highway rest stops that dot our fruited plain.
Since 1960, federal law has limited commercial activity at Interstate rest stops. The logic of the time was to shield local business interests just off the highways from competition. Yet most local greasy spoons have long been displaced by fast-food chains, while the rest stops themselves remain limited to offering only vending machines, maps and brochures, and water fountains.
Now, more than a half-century later, the direct public financing of major infrastructure still plays on the nostalgia of many citizens’ vision of mid-20th century America. But road-building is expensive; the Interstate highway system cost the government more than $500 billion  in current dollars to construct.
Given how much pressure deficit spending is already placing on federal budgets, whether we like it or not, 21st century public works will have to be much more entrepreneurial and much less dependent on public funding. If President Donald Trump’s infrastructure plan really seeks to scrub laws from the federal books that inhibit both businesses and the building of infrastructure, Congress should take a hard look at lifting these kinds of blanket restrictions on rest-stop commercial activity.
The irony is that many U.S. travelers know what profitable rest stops look like. This is because the federal law grandfathered in existing rest stops in some areas of the country – including along the East Coast and throughout the Midwest. These rest stops function through privately-run concessions. Many offer amenities not much different from those offered at upscale malls, including movie theatres, dentists, barbers, showers and even dog washes. In other words, these locations make money and return tax receipts to state coffers.
The problem is that there just aren’t enough of these commercial rest stops in more isolated parts of the country – where they’re often needed most. Nor will there ever be, if current restrictions aren’t lifted.
In recent years, a new problem has emerged that could mean the restrictions’ days are numbered. In addition to limiting rest-stop food options to vending-machine fare, the law now prevents car companies and utilities from installing electric-vehicle charging stations at those locations. With more than 500,000 plug-in electric vehicles traveling U.S. roads, and more vehicles coming each year, increasing political pressure could convince lawmakers to lift commercial restrictions on stops that include an electric-vehicle charging station. Removing these restrictions and opening rest stops to ordinary commercial activity would attract customers to electric-vehicle charging stations and vice versa, meaning more revenue for states charged with maintaining the rest stops within their borders.
Efforts to open rest stops to privatization have been met with resistance from the National Association of Truck Stop Operators and other business owners who benefit from the status quo. But pressure is mounting, especially in western states that have no grandfathered commercial rest-stops but watch states like Maryland and Connecticut sign private-public partnership agreements to generate new revenue for maintaining their rest stops. In Connecticut’s case, the state has a vendor deal from which it will receive a minimum guarantee of over $100 million. In contrast, states like Arizona – which have no commercial rest stops on its Interstate roads – spend about $4 million each year  on rest-stop upkeep.
Lawmakers are currently pondering legislation that would relax some commercial limits, but an outright lifting of the commercial ban is the most logical next step. With major inroads of both electric and automated vehicles coming down the (toll) pike, now may be the best time to plan for what the country’s car travelers need from their Interstate system over the next 60 years.
- “1,200”: https://www.wsj.com/articles/why-some-stops-are-a-cut-above-the-rest-1519070148
- “$500 billion”: http://www.publicpurpose.com/freeway1.htm
- “$4 million each year”: https://azgovernor.gov/governor/news/2017/11/governor-ducey-feds-time-improve-highway-rest-stops