Privatize rest stops

The recent closing of 19 rest areas along Virginia’s interstate highways has already had an economic impact. Convenience stores near the highways say they’ve had to stock up on extra toilet paper and paper towels and some report spikes in sales of snacks and soft drinks.

Faced with a $2.6 billion budget shortfall over the next six years, state officials say they had no choice but to close the rest areas — a savings of about $8.6 million this year. That’s after the state appropriated $20 million in 2006 to renovate and rebuild a number of Virginia’s welcome centers and rest areas, including the $5.9 million spent on the troubled rebuilding of the welcome center in Clear Brook. That welcome center will remain open, as will others that were renovated.

Privatizing the state’s rest areas is seen as one way to avoid the closures. An amendment introduced by Rep. Frank Wolf, R-10th, that would have given a waiver to the state and allowed commercial development of interstate rest areas — similar to travel plazas along the Pennsylvania and Ohio turnpikes — was shot down in committee. That’s not surprising, given the fierce opposition of such groups as the National Association of Truck Stop Operators.

The privatizing idea is not new. In 1991, the Virginia Transportation Research Council concluded, perhaps optimistically, that commercialization of rest areas on interstates “can potentially rescue a number of state budgets while enhancing the comfort and safety of motorists.” Just adding vending machines in 1987 brought an “overwhelmingly positive” public response, the report stated.

With the state’s transportation budget in collapse, privatizing rest areas is an idea that should still be pursued.