Why should states subsidize highway rest stops?
Rest stops are a familiar sight along major highways across America. I'd always assumed they made money for the states. After all, huge numbers of motorists stop to get gas and buy fast food. States could charge a pretty penny for the rights to sell gas or burgers.
Apprently, that's not the case. Virginia is considering closing 25 of its rest stops, and not just ones out in rural areas: many of the stops planned for closure are in denser Northern Virginia and the Richmond area. For some of those remaining open, VDOT cites "Economic benefit to Commonwealth" as the reason, but it's unclear whether they mean they make a profit on it, or whether they've just decided that subsidizing driving to those areas is a worthwhile financial tradeoff. Update: Commenters pointed out that Virginia's rest stops are not the ones with fast food and gas, like on the New Jersey Turnpike, but the parking lots with bathrooms and a map variety.
Marc Fisher thinks keeping the rest stops is a safety issue, and argues that Virginia will spend more on police to deal with the crashes that could ensue. In particular, truck stops and restaurants that cater to them have been closing, Fisher says, depriving truckers of good opportunities to pull off the road for a nap.
But if the rest stops provide subsidized places to rest, that cuts into the business models of commercial truck stops. Maybe if Virginia closes some, that'll drive revenue to commercial stops. Likewise, for passenger vehicles, highway rest stops take business away from nearby restaurants. If the rest stop restaurants were paying the cost of their space, that's fine, but the Commonwealth shouldn't use general revenue to help restaurants at the rest stops and hurt their off-highway neighbors.
Federal regulations require
a certain amount of rest truckers to spend a certain number of hours resting. Opponents of closing the rest stops say that without the stops, truckers will violate the rules more. How about better enforcement, then? Or charging truckers to park? If parking fees or fines bring in enough money, the state could pay for more rest stops that way.
Finally, there are alternatives to trucking, such as rail. For the two to compete fairly, both modes should pay their costs. If the state is subsidizing rest stops, then the trucking industry is offloading some of the cost of giving drivers the rest they need onto the public. Any roadside operation should recoup its own costs. Otherwise, it's unfairly competing with nearby restaurants and other modes of travel.
Update: OK, I'm convinced that leaving the rest stops there makes sense. Anyway, if VDOT wants to save money, they can quite simply cut some of the wasteful highway widening projects, like I-81, that they're so eager for. That'll save a lot more than the $12 million it costs to maintain rest stops.
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