By Marc Fisher
Tuesday, March 31, 2009
Have you ever noticed that the rest stops along Virginia's interstate highways include no gas stations, restaurants or other commercial services, while those along I-95 in Maryland have busy mini-malls offering everything from tuna to tune-ups?
I'd never given this a moment's thought until this latest hullabaloo over Virginia's plan to trim its budget by closing down many of its highway rest stops, including all six in Northern Virginia.
Now, as truck drivers and other frequent interstate users rise up in defense of the rest stops, that odd disparity is raising lots of questions: Why is it, exactly, that Maryland House and Chesapeake House, the two facilities along I-95 between Baltimore and Delaware, exist while the rest stops on the Virginia side of the border offer nothing more than restrooms and a few vending machines?
The two Maryland facilities bring in $40 million a year in revenue; Virginia is hoping to save just $12 million by shutting 25 of its 41 rest stops. So instead of closing down the rest stations, why doesn't Virginia privatize them and let gas stations and eateries bloom?
Because it's illegal. And it's not Virginia that made it so, but rather the feds. So why doesn't federal law apply equally to Maryland as to Virginia? It does, but Maryland gets to keep its commercial rest stops on interstate highways for two reasons: They're grandfathered in -- Maryland House was built at the same time as I-95, in 1963; and Chesapeake House followed in 1975 -- and (here's the real issue) Maryland cleverly turned that portion of I-95 between Baltimore and Delaware into a toll road, and the federal ban on commercial establishments on interstate highways does not apply to toll roads.
Could Virginia get around the federal ban by instituting a toll somewhere along I-95 and I-81? Probably. Is it politically feasible to add a toll to those roads? Not right now, certainly not in this economic climate.
There is another way around the ban: Virginia could ask the feds for a waiver from the law, and there's already a nascent movement to seek such an exemption.
The ban stems from lobbying by local communities all across the country where businesses worried that if the interstate highways offered drivers lots of basic services right there on the road, folks wouldn't get off at the exits to use local gas stations and food joints. That's likely to remain an issue even if Virginia's congressional delegation pushes for a waiver, but for the moment, it looks like the prospect of having no rest stops at all is unnerving enough to override local business concerns.
I don't see why the state should spend any money maintaining rest stops when that function has been successfully privatized in other places. The food offerings at the Maryland travel plazas are awful and unduly pricey, but you're paying for the convenience, and judging by the massive crowds at those stops -- 5.4 million vehicles a year take a break at the two facilities -- the public has voted for that concept with a resounding "Yes."
If Virginia is looking to cut costs, the right move is not to shut down rest stops but to hand them over to private businesses that will be only too happy to make a bundle off travelers who are ever willing to pay a price to get where they're going a little bit faster.