Tuesday, April 11, 2017

From the Archives: Heritage Foundation's Ronald Utt discusses commercialization of highway rest areas

Publisher's note: This article was originally published on Examiner.com on April 11, 2010. The Examiner.com publishing platform was discontinued July 1, 2016, and its web site went dark on or about July 10, 2016.  I am republishing this piece in an effort to preserve it and all my other contributions to Examiner.com since April 6, 2010. It is reposted here without most of the internal links that were in the original.

Heritage Foundation's Ronald Utt discusses commercialization of highway rest areas
April 11, 2010 3:01 PM MST

In 2009, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) closed down about half of the rest areas along interstate highways as a cost-cutting measure. The decision was controversial, and as a candidate for governor, Bob McDonnell made reopening the rest areas one of his most emphatic promises. As governor, McDonnell followed through and the rest areas began to be opened again last month.

One of the issues raised last summer was a federal prohibition on commercial activity at interstate rest stops, which is not universal but nearly so and includes Virginia. On July 17 – just days before the rest areas were scheduled to close on July 21 -- Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA10) introduced an amendment to the transportation appropriations bill, which was killed in the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on a vote of 26(Yea)-32(Nay).

After he spoke at a Cato Institute briefing on transportation issues on Capitol Hill on April 9, Dr. Ronald Utt answered a few questions about the history of this prohibition and the reasons that highway rest areas are closed to business activity.

Early History

Ronald Utt highway rest areas Heritage Foundation transportation Rick Sincere
The prohibition “literally goes back to the creation of the interstate highway system,” said Utt, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, “where you already had existing interstate routes, like Route 1 on the East Coast, that had a lot of commercial development around it that was dependent on the traffic.” There was a perception that “the creation of an alternative highway system right nearby would have threatened the business of those people if there were new commercial establishments started.”

In response, supporters of the interstate system tried to “neutralize opposition … from the existing commercial people” by deciding “that there would be no commercial activity on any of the rest stops. Nothing would be sold -- no gasoline, no food, no motels .... And that essentially bought them off.”

Utt pointed out that today, “most of those businesses that were protected have gone out of business a long time ago. Fast food restaurants didn’t exist back then but they tend to be the largest and most active opponents of commercialization of federal rest stops because they’re the ones who now own the land and the businesses at existing interchanges.”

Local Ownership

Asked whether local businesses could be given “dibs” on taking over the rest stops, Utt replied:

“Exactly. The right of first refusal could go to [anybody who] has something within, let’s say, 100 yards of an existing interchange. Whether it’s a gas station, a coffee shop, or a restaurant, the first round of bidding could be limited to them.”

Naming Rights

What about granting naming rights, where businesses could “sponsor” a rest stop?

Utt chuckled and said, “That’s a good question. I don’t know, given the state of the economy, how much people would pay for that. That’s obviously an idea.”

Then he continued with an illustration from a neighboring state.

“I’ve noticed at some of the North Carolina rest stops along I-95 that there is a certain amount of promotion by the people who provide free services or cut-rate services for those rest stops,” Utt said. “For example, in North Carolina I saw a brass plaque that’s displayed prominently that says ‘Landscape care and lawn care by such-and-such a company.’ So I’m assuming that they were either doing this for free for the exposure, or at a discount for the exposure.”

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