Driving on I-75
on a cold day while running late and low on gas, you might ponder why the
state's rest areas don't offer a place to fill up or grab a bite to eat. The
answer is that business endeavors on Michigan highways are prohibited by state
and federal law. While removing these restrictions may be politically
difficult, doing so would help motorists looking for convenience and a state
looking for revenue.
Rest areas can be traced
back to 1929, when the manager of the Ionia County Road Commission created the
nation's first "roadside park" after seeing families stop on the roadside to
have a picnic.
The Interstate Highway
Act of the 1950s stipulated that more of these "Safety Rest Areas" be included
in the construction of the interstate highway system. These areas were put in
vast stretches of land and wilderness between cities, where common services
might not be available, according to historian Joanna Dowling. State and
federal law, however, did — and still does — prevent commercial endeavors along
Little has changed since
the Highway Act's inception. According to federal regulations, rest areas exist
to "provide facilities reasonably necessary for the comfort, convenience,
relaxation, and information needs of the motorist." Michigan law echoes the
federal law: "The state transportation department shall allow only the
installation of vending machines at selected sites on the limited access
highway system to dispense food, drink, and other articles that the state
transportation department determines appropriate."
Drivers may be aware
that other states have turnpikes with multiple food vendors, gas stations and
other commercial endeavors. Different laws govern service plazas on toll roads,
and they allow for business activity. That the law treats rest areas as safety
features on the highway ignores the use that most people get out of them.
We don't live in that
1950s world where there is pent-up demand for a roadside picnic. There are lots
of opportunities to eat at local parks and public forests. In fact, it's likely
that rest areas that offer more services, such as food and fill-ups, would be
quite popular. Speculators have even purchased options to buy land adjacent to
rest areas just in case the state permits commercialization.
Obviously, there's going
to be pushback for selling rest area assets. Converting Michigan's 81 rest
areas to commercial convenience areas would mean that all of the off-ramp gas
stations, truck stops and fast-food restaurants would face new competition from
places with easier access.
Also, many of the rest
areas may not be big enough. Current rest areas are designed to accommodate
motorists' habits — average stops of 15 minutes or less. If people are also
getting food and gas, however, additional parking may be needed, and expansion
might not be possible in some areas. But like an autographed baseball, you're
never quite sure what it is worth until you try to sell it.
Of course, beyond the
benefits of offering drivers new and attractive services, commercialized rest
areas could serve as a revenue source for the state. The restaurants and retail
establishments at Ohio's 14 turnpike service plazas returned $13.6 million
to the state last year, and there were additional revenues from its other
commercial endeavors. While Michigan's potential revenues are difficult to
estimate, they could easily be in the millions of dollars. Because the rest
areas are in locations all around the state, however, a quick analysis of their
expected market value is unavailable.
Since the state is
prohibited by state and federal law from commercializing its rest areas, it has
First, the state could
theoretically convert its roadways to turnpikes and reclassify its rest areas
as toll plazas. That is unlikely, and revenues from commercialized rest areas
should not be the impetus for making such a drastic change in how Michigan
finances its highways.
Next, the state could
apply for a waiver of rest area commercialization regulations from the Federal
Highway Administration. A Special Experimental Project (SEP-15) waiver was
created to allow public-private partnership experiments and may allow the state
to waive commercialization restrictions. However, it is up to the
administration to approve these waivers, and no waivers for rest area
commercialization have yet been approved.
congressional delegation could work to eliminate commercialization
restrictions. Congress looked at removing these restrictions in the past two
highway spending reauthorizations, but have not done so. Eliminating the
restrictions would be the most straight-forward way of opening Michigan's rest
areas to privatization.
All three options would
require changes in Michigan's law as well.
service plazas would help state legislators meet current road construction
needs. Travelers, too, would benefit from a wider selection of roadside
James Hohman is a fiscal policy analyst at the Mackinac
Center for Public Policy.