Feds Should Get Out of the Way of State Rest Area Privatization

The reliably astute Ron Utt at the Heritage Foundation has a new policy brief on state rest area privatization that’s well worth a read.

The nutshell is this: states like Virginia and Arizona are shutting down rest areas in the face of major budget deficits and spending cuts. Predictably, this creates a highway safety problem, as rest areas provide places for truckers and drivers to stop and refresh so they’re not pulling off on the side of the highway, falling asleep at the wheel, etc.

While you’d think that privatization of these typically meager facilities would be an obvious win-win solution bringing far better service options (I’d hit up a Starbucks stand during a pit stop myself), as usual the Feds are standing in the way with a prohibition on privatization for rest stops on federal aid highways.

This prohibition arose decades ago when rent seeking business groups lobbied for protections from competition as the new Interstates were coming online. They didn’t want the downtown diner or highway gas station to lose business to a fast food joint on the new Interstatesâ??which happened anyway since these businesses just located right off the exits. So now you’ve got a situation in which the fast food companies, gas stations, etc. managed to prosper despite a regulatory dustbunny that was created to hurt them. And they’ll be the likely opponents of moves to open up new competition at public rest stops via privatization (oh, the irony), despite the fact that it would give them an opportunity to do more business.

But what I found most interesting about Utt’s article is that he suggests one radical option to consider: states could ignore the Feds completely and just privatize anyway. Let the Feds muster the will to defend their prohibition and argue against a viable funding solution to enhance public safety. On one hand, you have an anachronistic, intrusive federal law that usurps reasonable state policymaking. On the other, you have an alternative to closing rest stops and jeopardizing safety, you’d create new business opportunities and revenues to the state in tough fiscal times, and you’d improve these decrepit facilities. Seems like an easy choice.

There’s nothing inherently governmental about running a parking lot with bathrooms. If the feds won’t get out of the way of state rest area privatization themselves, then perhaps a bold state leader may just take on that fight. How do you lose with an argument like “privatize for highway safety”?