Review of Nonpublic Funding Options Available to the Virginia Department of Transportation for the Operation and Maintenance of Its Safety Rest Areas and Welcome Centers

Report No: 11-R22

Published in 2011

About the report:

During its 2010 Regular Session, the Virginia General Assembly passed House Joint Resolution No. 126 and Senate Joint Resolution No. 99 “[r]equesting the Virginia Transportation Research Council to study alternatives to the public funding and operation of all or portions of the Commonwealth’s interstate safety rest areas.”  These resolutions were sponsored by Delegate Dave Nutter (7th House District) and Senator Mark Herring (33rd Senate District), respectively.  The findings of the review were to be completed by November 30, 2010, and submitted to the Division of Legislative Automated Systems no later than the first day of the 2011 Regular Session of the General Assembly. 

In 2009, 19 Virginia interstate SRAs were closed with the intent of saving approximately $9 million per year in costs to the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), but these closures were met with opposition by interstate travelers because of concerns regarding traveler safety, losses of state tourism dollars, and the injury to the Commonwealth’s reputation as a business-friendly state. 

Federal law prohibits federal-aid highways from offering any type of commerce for “serving motor vehicle users” at SRAs located on the interstate highway system right-of-way unless the establishment was in existence prior to 1960 and is owned by a state (23 U.S.C. § 111).  Accordingly, commercial enterprises in Virginia have located off-line at interstate interchanges and are now consistently opposed to efforts to amend directly or interpret innovatively federal code limiting commercial activity at SRAs.  Yet the commercialization of SRAs is not the only possible access through federal or state code to nonpublic funding of these facilities.

In the last 20 years, incremental changes—essentially “workarounds”—have been introduced to federal law through federal transportation authorizations either allowing charges for specific, limited services meeting national needs through interstate SRAs or providing innovative pilot programs aimed at generating “whole-facility” interstate funding, such as tolling.  Although it is true that some nonpublic SRA funding options have appeared and disappeared with successive federal surface transportation programs, there are other avenues to nonpublic funding of SRAs allowable under current federal code, currently extended federal transportation authorization, and current state law.

A review of state and federal law governing interstate highway right-of-way, surveys of Virginia interstate rest area users, interviews with industry groups, assessment of current state DOT initiatives for interstate SRA funding, and questionnaires distributed to state DOTs provided the nonpublic funding options presented in this report.  These options include the expansion of vending options, indoor advertising, and facility sponsorship, as well as relocated facilities under regional management at scenic/historic locations and commercial facilities on private land adjacent to existing SRAs in the interstate right-of-way.  In the long term, modification of the provisions of 23 U.S.C. § 111 or the repeal of 23 U.S.C. § 301 would allow states significantly more flexibility in nonpublic funding options for interstate safety rest areas.

Disclaimer Statement:The contents of this report reflect the views of the author(s), who is responsible for the facts and the accuracy of the data presented herein. The contents do not necessarily reflect the official views or policies of the Virginia Department of Transportation, the Commonwealth Transportation Board, or the Federal Highway Administration. This report does not constitute a standard, specification, or regulation. Any inclusion of manufacturer names, trade names, or trademarks is for identification purposes only and is not to be considered an endorsement.

Last updated: November 17, 2023

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