Brewer wants option to privatize rest stops - East Valley Tribune: Arizona

Brewer wants option to privatize rest stops

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Posted: Saturday, February 13, 2010 8:35 pm | Updated: 3:35 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

Gov. Jan Brewer wants Congress to lift federal restrictions on rules for rest areas so Arizona could lease space in them to commercial operations - or sell them off outright.

Gov. Jan Brewer wants Congress to lift federal restrictions on rules for rest areas so Arizona could lease space in them to commercial operations - or sell them off outright.

In a letter Friday to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, the governor said the state's budget problems resulted in barricades being placed across entrances to 13 of the state's 18 roadside rest areas. At this point, the state Department of Transportation has no cash to maintain and provide the necessary security.

The problem, Brewer said, is that a 54-year-old federal law limits the ability of the state to look for more creative solutions, such as privatizing or commercializing them.

"This law exemplifies how an outdated federal regulation places a heavy hand on states," the governor wrote. "In these difficult economic times, the law also prevents states from encouraging tourism and ensuring public safety on the highways."

Brewer's letter comes just days after the state House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure gave unanimous approval to a proposal by Rep. Daniel Patterson, D-Tucson, designed to allow ADOT to sign agreements with local governments or even private entities to maintain rest areas at their own expense.

Patterson, hearing of the governor's request to LaHood, chided her for ignoring what he said is an easy solution versus trying to change federal law.

"Good luck with that," he said. Patterson said he hopes that Brewer's interest in reopening the rest areas that closed last October will result in her backing his legislation.

But gubernatorial press aide Paul Senseman said ADOT already has the authority Patterson seeks to provide. The problem, said Senseman, is that ADOT has found no one interested in spending the money.

There are federal highways that have rest stops with commercial operations in rest areas. But these went in before the law was changed in 1956.

Brewer said there is no reason that other states whose highways are of more recent vintage should be denied the same economic opportunities.

Senseman said one option is privatization, selling off the rest areas entirely. The buyer would be contractually obligated to keep it open and maintained.

A more likely scenario, he said, would be commercializing the rest areas into plazas with gas stations and restaurants. That would enable the state to bring in revenues to not only keep the rest areas open but fund other improvements.

ADOT lobbyist Kevin Biesty said efforts have been under way to look for partnerships - short of the commercialization that Brewer wants - to pick up the cost of maintaining rest stops. The problem, he said, is the cost: It takes about $300,000 a year to operate each one.

"These are like small cities," he said. "You need to bring in electricity and water and take waste away."

Biesty said ADOT is constantly looking for partners for all of its operations. He said that already has happened in one area, with St. Johns agreeing to help pay to keep a Motor Vehicle Division office open in that community.

Patterson, however, said HB2645 remains necessary to ensure that there is clear legal authority to partner for rest areas and ADOT does not raise "bureaucratic obstacles" at the last minute.

He also is opposed to Brewer's proposal to commercialize the rest areas.

Patterson acknowledged that gas stations and restaurants are quite commonplace on interstate highways in the East. But he said Arizona is different.

"We've got a lot better scenery than a state like New Jersey," he said.

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