After a decade, 'public-private' rest stops seen as mostly good
Like most marriages, the good comes with some bad. But partnerships between Utah and five service stations to offer "public-private" rest stops along Interstate 15 is solid enough after a decade that both sides say they would do it all over again.
But to be honest, both say they wouldn't mind a few changes for the better in their partners, too. Despite such minor annoyances, other states see the situation as advantageous enough that they are starting to follow Utah's example.
Those rest stops "have saved a lot of money for the taxpayers. That's the biggest thing," said Richard Clarke, maintenance engineer for the Utah Department of Transportation. He says each of the five such I-15 rest stops save the state about $85,000 a year Â the average cost to maintain each of its other traditional rest stops Â or roughly $425,000 annually as a group.
Utah became the first state just over a decade ago to team with service stations to offer the public-private partnership rest stops Â which now are in Springville, Scipio, Fillmore, Cove Fort and Beaver. Most replaced old, traditional rest stops that were at the end of their life spans, including facing problems with wells or septic tank systems.
"The only cost to the state is to put up the signs" to lead drivers to those service stations and advertise them as a public-private rest stop, Clarke said.
The service stations had to agree to be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week; provide water and large restrooms (with at least five stalls) without any obligation for visitors to buy anything; provide extra parking; and agree to meet certain standards of cleanliness and to allow inspections by UDOT. For that, they hoped to attract some extra business.
"I think it has increased business. For us, it generally has been a good experience," said Marleen Hodges, co-owner of a Chevron in Cove Fort that is one of the rest stops. But she said it has brought some problems, too.
One surprise, she said, is how much restroom vandalism and messes increased once it became a rest stop.
"We do get a lot of people who think they are sticking it to Uncle Sam" by leaving messes and anti-government messages as a protest, she said. "It got to be so bad that I posted signs in the restroom saying that maintenance was performed at the owner's expense. That helped a little bit."
Another unpleasant surprise, she said, was that people assumed her private parking lot is government-owned. So she said trucking companies tried to leave trailers there to be picked up by other drivers later, some people abandoned cars, and some left cars for days as they traveled with others. She said it created liability issues beyond parking problems.
That wasn't all.
"We get a lot of people who want to clean a week's worth of trash out of an RV" and fill up trash cans, so her cost of trash bags is high. Other extra costs came from snow removal of the large parking lot it maintains, cleaning up a picnic area it offers, and staying open all night every day.
When the recession hit, she said most people stopped just for restrooms and water and weren't buying anything extra.
Still, Hodges said they decided to continue the arrangement. "We're difficult to locate without the help of signage," she said. "This helps a lot of tourists to find us" Â and state websites help them to see miles ahead via the Internet or smartphone where they are and what they offer.
Clarke said some other stations dropped out of the program for a few months. "But they noticed a drop in their business and came back."
But Clarke said covering the extra costs as a rest stop isn't for everyone. He said the state approached a few other stations about signing up when it thought some existing stations would drop out of the program. "They were very interested at first. But when they saw what it would require and what the costs would be, they said no thanks."
Clarke said the state receives more complaints about the public-private rest stops than it does about its traditional stops.
"Probably the biggest complaint we get is they are not a substitute for a rest area. Really, we don't intend it to be a rest area where you stop and the family gets out and has a picnic, and the kids get out and play on the grass," he said. "It's really a cost-saving thing more than anything."
Also, he said the public-private stops receive more complaints about cleanliness.
"Sometimes they will get a bus load of people in there, and it will get pretty junky before they can clean it up again," he said. "We don't get those complaints so much [at regular rest stops] because you don't see buses stop at a rest area as much as they would one of these private rest stops."
But Clarke says the state is still content with the service Â although he sees no big push by the state or service stations to create more. "We're certainly happy with them. It fills a certain gap."
Clarke said the federal government recently started a program to encourage similar stations elsewhere and allow uniform signs for them nationwide. "A lot of states that have been dipping their toe into this have been calling and asking how is it working for us, and if they can get a copy of our contract. So we've kind of been a leader in the rest stop program."
Also, Clarke said states have long pushed unsuccessfully for the federal government to allow rest stops on interstate freeways to allow fast-food restaurants that would take over and run rest stops. He said that has been blocked on federally funded highways by lobbying by other travel-related businesses that could be put at a disadvantage.