State shouldn’t compete with roadside business - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

State shouldn’t compete with roadside business

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Posted: Wednesday, October 14, 2009 11:20 am | Updated: 2:45 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

Our View: Most of the state-owned highway rest areas will close next week as the Arizona Department of Transportation seeks to erase a $100 million funding shortfall, Capitol Media Services has reported. State highway transportation planners probably expect such closures to be temporary, and the rest areas will open again once the economy rebounds.

 Most of the state-owned highway rest areas will close next week as the Arizona Department of Transportation seeks to erase a $100 million funding shortfall, Capitol Media Services has reported. State highway transportation planners probably expect such closures to be temporary, and the rest areas will open again once the economy rebounds.

But these closures provide an opportunity for the state to gauge if the traveling public really needs taxpayers to provide them with places to use a bathroom, stretch their legs or exercise their pets. This might be the perfect time for Arizona to stop competing for traveling business with private gas stations, convenience stores and roadside diners.

Government-funded rest areas date back to at least 1938, when the federal government decided to pay for them as part of highway construction subsidies to the states. The concept was invented at a time when automobiles traveled at slower speeds, and it was rare to see stand-alone gas stations far from a town or city.

But states can overbuild rest areas with costly special features just to impress travelers and often make poor choices about placement.

For example, the largest rest area in Wyoming is located in Cheyenne — at the same freeway exit as a McDonald’s and two huge gas stations.

Federal law forbids states from turning over existing rest areas to private operators, as some economists have proposed. But there’s another approach that would save Arizona taxpayers a lot of money.

Drive along Interstate 15 in Utah from St. George to Salt Lake City and you’ll see special signs pointing to state-designated rest areas.

These stops turn out to be privately owned and operated convenience stores, which have signed agreements with Utah pledging to make their rest rooms and parking lots available to all travelers 24 hours a day.

In return, Utah only has to buy the signs that guide travelers to these stores.

A 2007 survey by the Utah highway department found visitors generally preferred the private rest areas over the state-owned versions because the private locations were safer and the travelers could buy gas or food and drinks during their break.

ADOT will keep a handful of rest areas that are located in isolated spots. With the abundance of private alternatives along the highways, there won’t be a good reason to ever reopen the others.

But if Arizona is worried travelers won’t know where to stop, a form of Utah’s private-public partnerships would be the perfect solution.

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