Having explained the problems with rest areas and their closure in Wyoming, what can we learn from that, and what can we do to provide an essential service AND expand liberty?
If you haven’t read Part I or Part II, here is a brief synopsis: Due to the financial crisis (courtesy of the Pandemic Panic and resulting economic collapse), the State of Wyoming DOT closed 10 of its 37 rest areas along highways and interstates with very little warning, this month. Rest areas along major highways, especially in relatively “empty” States like Wyoming, are seen as an important safety and public health feature of highways, serving both private and commercial traffic (especially truckers). These area viewed in various ways by libertarians. Are they yet another example of the nanny state, competing with private business? Or are they an essential part of providing transportation? (Is it the role of government to provide highways?)
Besides the cost of operating these facilities, there is another issue. Do these rest areas compete unfairly with private business. Should government be in the business of providing “recreational” areas and facilities at all, even if there is a public health and safety argument for them.
Although the entire issue of the necessity for public highways to be provided (at least in the 20th and 21st Century world) by government is too complex to tackle here, I do believe that roads and highways CAN be provided by private business – even “for-profit” business, in at least something of a free market. My reasoning for this claim must wait for another time, of course.
Consider a free-market transportation system. There is competition between privately-built, maintained, and operated roads and highways, rail lines, and airplanes and airliners. On the roads there are private autos, scheduled bus service, taxis and jitneys (whether they are “Uber” or “Lyft” or older versions), rentals, chartered buses, and more. Would there be rest areas? I believe so: they are useful, even vital, and they are marketing tools. “Travel the Blue-and-Gold Route to California: Our Rest Areas are Rated #1,” for example. When combined (as some States do, even today) with highway maintenance and repair facilities, travel centers (not just information, but malls with stores and food places, even hotels and service station), these private facilities would be both profitable and common.
Actually, many existing turnpikes (toll highways) in the US and elsewhere (Germany and the UK come to mind) already have such an arrangement. Although all such toll roads are government-owned (even if built or operated privately), they operate as quasi-free enterprise, competing with one another and with businesses off the highways. I personally am most familiar with the facilities on the Kansas State Turnpike. These have food courts with a half-a-dozen various fast foods, a couple or three gift shops, usually an arcade, and of course a convenience store with fuel pumps. Plus toilets, showers, and picnic areas. All of these are privately operated by firms who lease the space and maintain the entire rest area, on competitive bids.
Germany has many such facilities on their autobahns, as does the UK on its motorways – even though these are non-toll highways. They include hotels, museums, and other features. Various companies own and run these. And generally the exits do not have the standard American junk food places, convenience stores and more.
Of course in Wyoming and many other American States, the vast majority of Interstate exits have NO businesses: maybe nothing more than a ranchstead or pumping station. Or a road to a distant town. And often not even a clump of trees to take advantage of for a tiny bit of privacy in doing your business.
So what can be done? What are the alternatives?
First, consider funding – how much of the current federal and state fuel excise taxes are diverted to NON-HIGHWAY work, or to “nice-to-have” things? (“Highway beautification” like buying and destroying billboards and putting up modern art comes to mind. As does paying for “mass transit” and bike lanes.) How much money is diverted by poor contracting for design and construction? Or for featherbedding state employees? Maybe the money needed for rest areas is just being squandered.
As one reader commented, in at least one state, maintenance and operation has been contracted out to private business. Assuming a general lack of corruption, that could also greatly reduce costs – AND improve the facilities.
Local organizations (even, unfortunately, local governments) could assume responsibilities to maintain and operate – and follow state-published standards. This could be chambers of commerce or tourist industry – or large local employers. Even civic groups – Rotary, Lions, Scouts, or 4-H…
One idea worth considering is to “commercialize” the rest areas: allow local businesses to lease the rest areas and provide stores and other business at or immediately adjacent to the rest areas. It might involve modular or mobile businesses (as is found on many secondary roads in the UK, where sales vans set up in or by lay-bys).
Sale of suitable advertising would raise funds, especially tied to local motels, hotels, restaurants, and tourist attractions. This could lead, ultimately, to the complete commercialization of rest areas, privately OWNED as well as operated and maintained. Whether or not the highways themselves were.
Clearly, the long-term solution is to GET GOVERNMENT OUT OF IT. But until that becomes possible (together with getting government out of providing highways and other transportation, directly or indirectly) there are ways to at least reduce the politics, the waste, and the arbitrary creation of safety and health issues.