MCLEAN, Va. – Highway rest stops are moving beyond the stereotypical plain buildings that house only restrooms and vending machines to become expansive service and travel plazas that offer amenities such as free Wi-Fi, fresh fruit and local delicacies to eat, according to a USA Today report.
These upgrades, frequently made through partnerships with private vendors that lease the plazas, are prompting some states to try and outdo each other.
"I would say it's a healthy competition," Bruce Gartner, executive director of the Maryland Transportation Authority, which owns two service plazas on Interstate 95, told the news outlet. "We learn and improve upon each other's concepts."
Some rest stops are specifically designed to resemble mini-malls rather than places to take a quick break on the road. Notable renovated rest stops include Maryland's Chesapeake House and Maryland House, which are in the process of a $56-million remodel. Maryland House expanded from 33,000 square feet to 42,000 square feet before it reopened last January.
Pennsylvania is also renovating the Pennsylvania Turnpike's 17 service plazas to accommodate travel volume. "We had these service plazas that were built in 1937, 1938, 1939," said Turnpike spokesman Carl DeFebo. "They were constructed to accommodate a certain level of vehicle volume. The planners didn't anticipate the level of usage on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, which was much higher than they expected."
Although the federal government in 1956 prohibited the commercialization of the Interstate Highway System's right-of-way, which includes rest stops and recreation areas, more than 2,000 miles of toll roads in 15 states were exempted from those restrictions a year later, and vending machines were allowed in 1982. Today, states with service plazas have a competitive advantage over those without, according to analysts.
"A state [with interstate service plazas] actually brings in revenue from fuel sales and other taxes, whereas a state like Virginia doesn't make any money and has … shut down rest areas to save money," said Emily Goff, a Heritage Foundation policy analyst. "That means motorists have fewer places to stop."
Although the anti-commercialization law was designed to protect existing businesses along interstate routes from newer ones that might be built closer to the highways, national chains inside interstate plazas are the ones being protected now, according to Goff.
However, groups like the National Association of Truck Stop Operators (NATSO) have resisted efforts to change the law and do not want other states to have the ability to add plazas to the interstate median. NATSO President and CEO Lisa Mullings noted that service plazas "are virtually a monopoly" due to their location, and that they draw customers away from businesses located just off the highway.