States pursue alternatives to keep rest areas open

By Keith Goble, Land Line state legislative editor | 2/11/2013

Officials in statehouses on both coasts are looking for ways to address concerns about adequate funding to keep open rest areas.

If a Washington state lawmaker gets his way, the state could pursue allowing private business to step in.

The Evergreen State now makes available 48 rest areas for travelers around the state. All but six sites are a part of the national highway system.

Federal law prohibits private and nonprofit entities to lease space at rest areas along the national highway system.

Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, has a bill that would ask the federal government to make an exception for the state.

“I would hate to not try because someone says it can’t be done,” Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, told the Senate Transportation Committee during discussion on the bill.

Specifically, Benton’s bill would require the Washington State Department of Transportation to request a waiver from the Federal Highway Administration to partner with private business to operate rest areas.

Benton said the state needs to maximize taxpayer-owned assets as they look to get needed projects done.

“If we’re paying to maintain rest areas and we can get someone else to pay that money, and maybe pay us some rent along the way, then taxpayers and the traveling public benefit.”

Since the new two-year highway bill was signed in July 2012, the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association has been urging DOT offices around the country to make truck parking a top priority and create more parking spaces, instead of spending money to study the problem.

OOIDA Executive Vice President Todd Spencer said it’s encouraging to see states like Washington take steps to improve the parking situation.

“If these efforts will end up increasing, or at least maintaining, parking for trucks, they certainly should be encouraged,” he said.

If the state cannot work out a deal to hand over rest areas, lawmakers in Washington are also looking at the possibility of selling naming rights.

A year ago, the state of Virginia signed a $2-million-a-year deal with the insurance company Geico to sponsor a phone safety program at 43 interstate rest stops. The deal was part of an initiative to help the state defray operating costs at the facilities.

A similar pursuit is underway in Olympia, WA. The proposal to authorize the sale of naming rights would apply to highways, bridges and rest areas.

Rep. Jan Angel, R-Port Orchard, says that revenue from selling a facility’s naming rights would help pay for the state’s operations, maintenance and improvements.

“During these challenging economic times, it is imperative that we, as legislators, try to think outside of the box,” Angel said in a news release.

On the East Coast, a New Hampshire lawmaker wants to reopen facilities closed in recent years. Rep. Dick Patten, D-Concord, introduced a bill to study rest areas that are closed to determine whether they could be opened and staffed by volunteers and civic organizations.

Down the Eastern Seaboard, a Maryland bill would start the process to request proposals from private groups to take over operation and maintenance of rest areas and welcome centers.

A legislative analysis notes that due to limited funding, the state has ceased operating nine welcome centers over the past six years.

In 2012, the state signed a deal with Spanish-owned Areas USA to pay for renovations on two travel plazas on the tolled portion of Interstate 95. In exchange for the demolition and reconstruction work, the company will lease, operate and maintain the two facilities through 2047. The state has a revenue-sharing agreement that provides a percentage of gross sales at the two facilities north of Baltimore.

State figures show that total investment and revenue to the state may top $600 million during the next 34 years.

This year’s legislative effort would direct all revenue from any additional lease deals to the state’s Transportation Trust Fund.

In nearby New Jersey, a bill could soon result in handing over responsibility of some rest areas around the state.

On the move is a bill to allow private companies to sponsor rest areas and service areas in return for upkeep of the facilities. The authority to reach deals would be given to the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, Department of Transportation and South Jersey Transportation Authority.

“Offering sponsorship is an opportunity that would help business and industry in the state as well as relieve a burden on taxpayers,” Assemblyman Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex, said in a release.

Assemblywoman Celeste Riley, D-Cumberland, said the state must look for creative ways to capitalize on the state’s major highways to generate new revenue without raising taxes.

“In this economy, every little bit we save would make a big difference in the long run,” Riley stated.

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