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Why It's Legal To Buy Gas & A Soda On I-95 In Md., But Not In Va.

Have you ever noticed that the rest stops along Virginia's Interstate highways include no gas stations, restaurants or other commercial services, while those along I-95 in Maryland have busy mini-malls offering everything from tuna to tune-ups?

I'd never given this a moment's thought until this latest hullabaloo over Virginia's plan to trim its budget by closing down many of its highway rest stops, including all six of the stops located in northern Virginia.

Now, as truck drivers and other frequent Interstate users rise up in defense of the rest stops, that odd disparity is raising lots of questions: Why is it exactly that Maryland House and Chesapeake House exist while the rest stops on the Virginia side of the border offer nothing more than bathrooms and a few vending machines?

The two Maryland facilities bring in $40 million a year in revenue; Virginia is hoping to save just $12 million by shutting down 25 of its 41 rest stops. So instead of closing down the rest stations, why doesn't Virginia privatize them and let gas stations and eateries bloom?

Because it's illegal. And it's not Virginia that made it so, but rather the feds. So why doesn't federal law apply equally to Maryland as to Virginia? It does, but Maryland gets to keep its commercial rest stops on Interstate highways for two reasons: They're grandfathered in--Maryland House was built at the same time as I-95, in 1963; and Chesapeake House followed in 1975--and (here's the real issue) Maryland cleverly turned that portion of I-95 between Baltimore and the Delaware border into a toll road, and the federal ban on commercial establishments on Interstate highways does not apply to toll roads.

Could Virginia get around the federal ban by instituting a toll somewhere along I-95 and I-81? Probably. Is it politically feasible to add a toll to those roads? Not right now, certainly not in this economic climate.

There is another way around the ban: Virginia could ask the feds for a waiver from the law, and there's already a nascent movement to seek such an exemption.

The ban stems from lobbying by local communities all around the country where businesses worried that if the Interstate highways offered drivers lots of basic services right there on the road, folks wouldn't get off at the exits to make use of local gas stations and food joints. That's likely to remain an issue even if Virginia's congressional delegation pushes for a waiver, but for the moment, it looks like the prospect of having no rest stops at all is unnerving enough to override local business concerns.

I don't see why the state should be spending any money maintaining rest stops when that function has been successfully privatized in other places; the food offerings at the Maryland travel plazas are awful and unduly pricey, but you're paying for the convenience, and judging by the massive crowds at those stops--5.4 million vehicles a year take a break at the two facilities--the public has voted for that concept with a resounding Yes. If Virginia is looking to cut costs, the right move is not to shut down rest stops but to hand them over to private businesses that will be only too happy to make a bundle off travelers who are ever willing to pay a price to get where they're going a little bit faster.

By Marc Fisher |  March 31, 2009; 8:32 AM ET
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The difference is that in Maryland -- and even moreso in New Jersey -- it's much more inconvenient to stop at a regular exit. The road is set up to force you into the "service area", which is overpriced and ugly as you admit. I like the VA way much better. Take an exit and use local businesses for gas and food, and keep the state-maintained rest areas right along the highway. On long driving trips, I've used interstate rest areas in many states, and it's only those few northeastern states that try to sell me something instead of just offering me a clean place to take a break.

Posted by: pxl4 | March 31, 2009 10:27 AM

pxl4 makes sense. I've driven a lot of highways across the country, and there's no shortage of exits with gas stations, a McDonalds/Burger King/Regional Burger Joint plus other restaurants. EZ-off, EZ-on.

If you have to pay to go to the restroom, better to have your choice of places than the one that bid highest from the state.

Posted by: ah___ | March 31, 2009 1:01 PM

I've traveled a lot over the last 10 years since my wife has regular doctor's appointments out of state. The states are not charging you to use the bathroom. Bathrooms are free. You can always choose to ignore the food, drinks and other concessions when you use one of the convenience rest stops. Most people are willing to take the below average fare at above average prices for the convenience. But you can choose to use the bathrooms and then get off the interstate at the next exit for your choice of food.

The problem here is that the two (rest areas and local businesses) are not completely interchangeable. The rest stops are at predictable locations which are advertised ("next rest area 32 miles", once you are in one, there is almost always a map of where the rest of them are on your route, etc) and are open 24 hours. Additionally, by making them on the main road, they are much safer. For drivers (including women traveling alone) who do not know the area, getting off the main road, especially after dark, especially in a relatively remote area, is just not an option. And when you do, you have no guarantee that any of the local business are open. I think that Virginia needs to find a way to keep rest areas open and Marc's suggestion is a good one. You don't have to use the businesses, but many will for the convenience. And the guarantee that it will be open, well lighted and much more secure (wide open parking lots where you can see strangers approaching from 100s of feet away) than random stops off the interstate.

Posted by: DadWannaBe | March 31, 2009 6:28 PM

Virginia is also a lot longer than Maryland, Delaware, and New Jersey, thereby increasing the likelihood that motorists traveling through will want to pull off for a meal or a fill-up. Pulling traffic off at local exists puts income in the pockets of local merchants and their employees, not the larger corporate interests who tend to dominate in-line service areas.

Posted by: bigolpoofter | March 31, 2009 6:57 PM

I've been part of programs in other places, where the state allows groups to "rent" a rest stop and provide coffee and refreshments to travelers. These programs have been wonderfully popular, and the stops are often booked months in advance. Perhaps this is something Virginia can look into doing. In the end, most of the country has rest stops like Virginia does...just a bathroom and some vending machines.

Though, to be honest, as much as I've traveled around the state, I've only know where two rest stops are. Would closing down the lesser used ones make much difference? I hope there's a study done before they do it.

Posted by: akchild | April 1, 2009 6:39 AM

They could save millions of dollars by shutting down the toilets in all the state government's facilities as well. Let the senators and delegates in Richmond run out to the fast food joints and hotels near the statehouse when they need to go. But toilets are a *necessity*, aren't they? What do they expect travelers to do at 2 in the morning between, say, DC and Front Royal?

Posted by: hmessinger2 | April 1, 2009 8:52 AM

"What do they expect travelers to do at 2 in the morning between, say, DC and Front Royal?"

Seriously? Are we really at the point where we need government intervention to help us go to the bathroom? Are we really this pathetic as a species?

Posted by: permagrin | April 1, 2009 9:03 AM

Marc, you are missing the point. This is not (_not_) a Md. vs. Va. issue.

It's properly framed as toll roads (financed withOUT federal dollars) vs. "free" roads.

Maryland has a pair of _very_ conventional rest areas along I-95 in Howard county, between Md. 216 and Md. 32, which are not much different from the ones along I-95 in the Commonwealth of Virginia. That's because Maryland's section of I-95 south of Baltimore is a "free" Interstate - just like it is in Virginia.

Maryland House and Chesapeake House (properly called turnpike service plazas) exist because that section of I-95 is a toll road, in particular the John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway, and it's owned and maintained by the Maryland Transportation Authority (MdTA), the state's toll road and toll crossing agency.

Steve Anderson, at his DCROADS.NET site, explains the history of the JFK Highway section of I-95 at the link below:

http://www.dcroads.net/roads/jfk/

Even more about the JFK Highway at Scott Kozel's Roads to the Future:

http://www.roadstothefuture.com/I95-MD-JFK-Highway.html

Getting back to the issue of service plazas on "free" Interstates, there is no reason, absent the federal prohibition, why there could not be such facilities on Interstates in Virginia and elsewhere.

They can be found on at least two major "free" freeways in the Canadian province of Ontario, Highways 400 and 401, where they are called "Highway Service Centres."

Read more at the link below, which takes you to the Ontario Ministry of Transportation (the MTO is essentially the same as a state department of transportation):

http://www.mto.gov.on.ca/english/traveller/questions-and-answers.shtml

Posted by: cpzpd | April 1, 2009 9:52 AM

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