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    Michigan Rest Stops May Add Gas Stations, Restaurants

    Significant opportunity seen for convenience store and petroleum marketers as state looks to finance road improvements by leasing space.

    DETROIT -- Michigan officials in the next year or two hope to begin leasing space at state-owned rest areas to gas-station and fast-food operators. In addition to being a convenience for motorists, officials say, the leases would bring in millions of dollars for badly needed road repairs in the cash-strapped state.

    "We're in a budget crunch and these rest areas are a good opportunity to bring in some money," said state Rep. Fran Amos, the Waterford Republican pushing the idea.

    Some states already lease rest area space to fast-food chains and gas stations along state-owned toll roads. Burger King, Dunkin' Donuts, McDonald's, Pizza Hut and Popeyes are among the foodservice brands found on Interstate travel plazas in states such as Florida, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania, according to the Lansing (Mich.) State Journal.

    Florida is guaranteed to take in $145 million in rents and commissions between 1989 and 2009 from its service plazas, according to a report by the Virginia Transportation Research Council. Illinois takes in about $5 million annually in food and gas sales from its seven toll-road plazas. How much Michigan could take in depends on the number and cost of leases issued. Those details are yet to be determined, but Amos said any amount would benefit the state's roads, consistently ranked among the worst in the country.

    Amos said she's found widespread bipartisan support in the legislature for her proposal but she faces two other hurdles: federal approval and opposition from some in the foodservice and gasoline industries, who defeated a similar push in the 1980s. They said the additions would hurt their sales and give roadside vendors an unfair advantage.

    Except for vending machines, federal law prohibits commercialization of rest areas along interstates. Most snack and beverage vending machines are operated by organizations for the blind. Michigan's machines took in $2.8 million in fiscal year 2002, according to the Michigan Commission for the Blind. But those figures could fall under a Bush administration proposal. Part of the reauthorization of the federal Transportation Equity Act, pending in Congress, would create a pilot program allowing experimental privatization of rest areas nationwide. This comes after years of courting by states that say they could make millions from leases and fees, the report said.

    In its initial stage, the program would allow states to submit proposals to join. Full commercialization could be approved a few years later, officials with the Federal Highway Administration said. Amos hopes Michigan is among the pilot states.

    While Michigan would take in more money, some owners of businesses off highway exits worry they could be taking in less. Others are excited about the plan. "Obviously, there are people with longstanding locations near exits who have concerns, but there also are operators who see the rest areas as fairly lucrative opportunities," said Rob Gifford, director of the Michigan Restaurant Association. "Both are good arguments."

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