Ohio Department of Transportation is ready to test a plan that could save Ohio millions of dollars, even if it doesn't work.
ODOT wants to have five of the state's 59 rest areas not along interstates converted into service plazas. Bids were released Monday.
The department is seeking bidders to lease the rest areas for development of convenience stores, gas stations and restaurants, similar to service plazas on the Ohio Turnpike.
The idea is to reduce the cost of maintaining the state's 104 rest areas, an annual $30 million-$50 million drain on the budget. That's a laudable goal, and the project would discover whether the service plazas would work on U.S. routes.
By design, the toll road differs from freeways in a way that provides a somewhat captive audience of travelers. Motorists on the limited-access highway who need fuel or a rest room break have no other option without exiting through a toll booth.
However, the five rest areas put up for bid Monday are a short distance from existing gas stations and restaurants. One, on US 23 in Pickaway County, is 10 miles from Circleville. Two on US 33 in Hocking County are about 5 miles from Logan. Of the two on US 50 in Athens County, one is about 10 miles from Athens and the other is 11 miles from Belpre.
The proximity of competition won't be lost on potential bidders. Obviously, if developers are found to convert the rest areas to service plazas, and the plazas can be run profitably, that would be great. If they would fail, that might be an indication travelers do not need the plazas.
If no bids are received, ODOT officials should consider whether rest areas truly are needed at those - and other - locations.
As stated at the onset, successful or not, this test could end up saving Ohio millions of dollars.