Gas, Food, Lodging, Payola: Why You Can't Trust Those Highway Signs
It may be news to you, though, that those signs are not an objective provided by a Department of Transportation. You are not being informed of all the options as you would be on a milepost or directional sign informing you of where to turn for a city or a road. You're only seeing a selection of available choices—of the businesses that can afford to pay.
Called logo signs, they are part of a for-profit business that by design exclude some businesses from being introduced to you as you drive. In Florida, for example, it costs a business $1,000 per sign in rural areas and $1,500 at busier ramps, and that price is for each direction. So only a restaurant that can afford to pay the state $3,000 can make its presence known to drivers passing by. In Washington State, rates are a little lower; freeways with 80,000 vehicles per day charge businesses $455 each way to alert drivers of their presence.
Even the stand-alone signs pointing the way to major attractions are paid for as advertising. In Michigan, for example, one of those costs $360 per year.
That price doesn't even include the cost of making the sign, which is also charged to the business.
The largest maker of the signs nationwide is called Interstate Logos, which many states contract for the assignment, fabrication, and rent collection of the signs. States may impose some additional criteria on businesses before they're considered eligible to pay that rent. For example, a gas station may be required to be open a certain number of hours, supply tire inflation, and also furnish drinking water.
Is it wrong to sell the space to the highest bidder? Not necessarily, but drivers should be aware that the selections they are seeing are by no means the only selections available, still in business, or even that they are seeing the best. The fee structure favors well-heeled corporations over mom-and-pop establishments.
If you really want to know the full range of available amenities at any exit ramp, you'll want to use an array of smartphone apps such as Yelp or Mapquest or turn on the recommendations of your car's GPS system.
But come to think of it, those can be rigged, too.