If you're listening this morning while driving along one of Arizona's beautiful desert highways, you might want to go easy on the coffee.
The state Department of Transportation has closed 13 of the state's 18 highway rest stops.
The department is deeply in debt. It had already closed 12 field offices, cut 10 percent of its staff, and deferred $370 million in construction projects. And when winter storms struck, it cost another $4 million to clear the roads.
When you gotta go, you gotta go. But something had to give: the 13 rest stops, which cost about $300,000 each to maintain every year.
Some Arizonans are suspicious. Betty L. Roberts of Sun City told The New York Times, "I honestly think they are setting us up because they want to do a tax increase." Connie Lucas, of Pine, Ariz., asked, "Why don't they charge a quarter or something?"
Americans are not used to paying as you go, if you please. New York outlawed pay toilets in the 1970s after it was sued for discriminating against women, who need to use a stall while men can stand. In 1990, a group of homeless people sued to insist on the right to free relief.
But pay toilets are as common in France as nuclear power plants, dog droppings and local cheese. Last summer, we got off a train in Paris with our two young daughters, who were bursting after a long ride. I couldn't get them into a bathroom without paying 4 euros in coins, and needed to use a 10 to buy two fruit drinks for 5 euros to get back enough change.
As I thunked euros into the slot, I thought: Fruit juice is more expensive on the way out than on the way in.
When you get past bathroom jokes, there is a fundamental question: Is government obliged to provide the traveling public with free restrooms?
There are private options, of course. But many highway spots post signs saying Customers Only. They're running restaurants, after all, not airline terminals, and figure that a constant stream — a poor choice of words I'll let stand — of restroom users overburdens their facilities.
Yet should a man or woman have to buy a Happy Meal just to answer nature's call?
A few other states, including Georgia, Vermont and Virginia, have closed public rest stops. But those are woodsy, hilly places, with lots of nooks and crannies to offer at least a little camouflage. Much of Arizona is a flat, magnificent moonscape. As one of our Western listeners, Katie Stone, delicately reminds us, "It's hard to find privacy in the desert."