Arizona wants commercialized rest areas, calls prohibition 'archaic and nonsensical'

By Tyson Fisher, Land Line staff writer | 11/7/2017

Arizona Gov. Douglas Ducey is asking for a big favor from the U.S. Department of Transportation. In a letter to Secretary Elaine Chao, Ducey is requesting a pilot program allowing the state to commercialize its 28 highway rest stops.

Per federal law, states are not allowed to permit commercial activities at rest areas. A few exceptions include items designed to promote tourism, travel-related information, lottery machines, and commercial ads that cannot be seen from the highway.

Another exception grandfathers in any commercialized rest area established before Jan. 1, 1960. Gov. Ducey calls this unfair because it “punishes younger states, especially in the West.” Ducey referred to an agreement in Connecticut that is expected to bring in more than $100 million in state revenue.

In the letter, Ducey explains that the aging rest areas cost taxpayers $4 million a year to maintain, with several eventually needing to be rebuilt. The governor is asking Chao to eliminate prohibitions on commercial activities at interstate rest areas, which he calls “archaic and nonsensical.”

Ducey is asking the DOT to give Arizona a “special experimental project” status to establish a pilot program to demonstrate the “technology and innovation benefits of operating rest areas through a partnership with the private sector.”

“Modernizing current law fits well with your agency’s efforts to encourage states to better leverage federal highway funding by unleashing the power and potential of the private sector, thereby creating new revenue streams for better funded highway construction and maintenance projects,” Ducey wrote in the letter. “Allowing states to explore commercial opportunities within interstate rest areas is vital to that goal.”

Natso, the organization representing travel plazas and truck stops, disagrees. In a news release, Alexandria, Va.-based Natso urges the DOT to reject Arizona’s request.

“Arizona wants to sidestep federal law – a law that has been debated and reaffirmed in Congress many times,” Lisa Mullings, Natso president and CEO, said in a statement. “Rest area commercialization threatens thousands of businesses serving travelers at the interstate exits. This ill-advised proposal risks the livelihood of hundreds of Arizona business owners and their employees, and would hurt local communities who depend on the property taxes these businesses pay to fund schools and police.”

Natso claims eliminating the commercialization prohibition will displace restaurants, travel plazas, truck stops, convenience stores and other businesses that already exist at highway exits. Established in 1960, the prohibition was set in place to allow the private sector to grow. Mullings called commercialization of rest areas a way for the government to create a monopoly “to the detriment of others operating in the free market.”

This is not Arizona’s first rodeo when it comes to commercializing rest areas. Back in 2010, Gov. Jan Brewer asked Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood for the same thing. Brewer’s request came during a time when 13 of 18 rest areas were closed because of the state’s inability to afford them. The Arizona Department of Transportation had a deficit of $100 million at the time.



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