Virginia Sells Naming Rights to Highway Rest Stops

Faced with budget shortfalls and a steep $20 million annual operating cost, this week Virginia decided to sell naming rights to its 42 highway rest stops.

While I’ve argued against WMATA’s proposal to sell naming rights to Metrorail stations, sponsorship of highway rest stops presents more opportunities for semi-private proprietorship. This could benefit both the commonwealth and travelers.

I defend Virginia’s decision in The Examiner:

Tacking business names onto rest stops — “Aflac Travel Plaza,” for instance — would allow businesses to target a clear but diverse audience: drivers.  And not just any drivers; rest stop users are not commuters, but travelers.  Marketing to this group has long relied on radio ads and billboards; sponsored rest stops (especially with corporate partnerships!) represents a whole new approach to grabbing roadtrippers’ eyeballs.

Rest stops will bear corporate names, so companies will have a sense of proprietorship over the areas.  Insurers like Aflac don’t want those eyeballs to fall on messy or poorly-stocked pitstops (or, for that matter, “culturally insensitive” remarks from its duck-voiced mascot).  Sponsoring businesses will be incentivized to keep the soda machines stocked and the restrooms clean.

Rest stop users occupy a different “traveler” demographic space from, say, high speed rail aficionados.  Products that naturally appeal more to highway users than to urbanites (like beef jerky manufacturers) can tap the surge in ad response that has lately belonged primarily to urban coupons.

The Metro is a union-operated single entity geared towards commuters (who can’t eat or drink). By contrast, the highway is for travelers and represents untapped opportunities for improvement and development.

Virginia rest stops are currently ramshackle little outposts with shoddy bathrooms and lean offerings for food and drink. Anyone who’s traveled through Delaware and Pennsylvania to get to NY (or who’s braved the Florida turnpike) knows that with food, drink, magazines, and a little TLC rest stations can be much, much more.

OpenMarket readers will probably split on this issue. What do you think, OpenMarket-ers? Can sponsorship help privatize — and therefore improve — Virginia’s rest stops? Leave your arguments in the comments!