NATSO, representing truckstops and travel plazas, and a diverse coalition that includes restaurants, fuel retailers, city governments, trucking firms and blind entrepreneurs urged lawmakers to oppose efforts to commercialize Interstate rest areas as Congress considers infrastructure legislation.
The groups, which represent hundreds of thousands of mostly small businesses that operate near the Interstate Highway System, urged lawmakers to reject proposals to carve out any exceptions to the longstanding ban that prohibits state departments of transportation from unfairly competing against the private sector by selling food, fuel or other commercial services, including electric vehicle charging, at Interstate rest areas.
America’s cities, restaurants, hotels, travel plazas, fuel retailers, convenience stores and blind merchants have been economically harmed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Fiscal losses by the nation’s businesses have led to unprecedented unemployment and massive municipal deficits. The private sector’s ability to operate in a competitive and robust marketplace ensures its ability to provide jobs, generate critical tax revenues and further enhance investments in alternative fuels, the groups said in a letter to the members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
“Offering food or fuel, including electric charging services at rest areas, would allow states to enter into a monopoly in which they unfairly compete with the private businesses already operating near the interstate exit interchanges to meet the needs of the motoring public,” said NATSO President and CEO Lisa Mullings. “If state governments preempt consumer demand, they will effectively destroy the incentive for private sector investment.”
“The ban on commercial services at Interstate rest areas exists in order to encourage private commercial activities in off-highway communities,” said NATSO Vice President of Government Affairs David Fialkov. “Carving out an exception for EV charging infrastructure would not only discourage existing refueling stations throughout the country from investing in charging infrastructure, but it will signal to prospective EV drivers that they will not be able to access the same amenities and fueling experience to which they are accustomed. This is the wrong signal for Congress to send.”
Upending long-established policy prohibiting commercial rest areas also threatens the livelihood of the nation’s blind merchants, who service the vending machines at rest areas, and would hinder the Department of Transportation’s goal of expanding commercial truck parking capacity nationwide.
Congress effectively privatized highway services in 1960, when Congress prohibited states from offering commercial services at rest areas along the Interstate Highway System specifically so that private sector entities would grow and provide services to the traveling public. This includes the establishment of fees for electric vehicle charging. Established businesses including travel plazas, convenience stores, restaurants and hotels are already meeting the needs of highway travelers.
In many rural communities located near Interstates, gas stations, restaurants, convenience stores, truckstops, and hotels represent the largest local taxpayers, contributing more than $22.5 billion in state and local taxes. These funds help support schools, police and fire departments and other vital public services.
“Any efforts to commercialize rest areas threaten the livelihoods of blind entrepreneurs in the United States who depend on revenue from rest area vending machines,” said Mark Riccobono, President of the National Federation of the Blind. “With unemployment among blind Americans exceeding 70 percent, permitting state-financed food operations that will cause blind entrepreneurs to lose their businesses is unconscionable. Congress enacted the Randolph-Sheppard Act to provide blind people with remunerative employment, enlarge our economic opportunities, and encourage self-support through the operation of vending facilities. Commercializing rest areas is contrary to that intent, and the National Federation of the Blind joins with other stakeholders in fighting these ill-conceived efforts to do so.”
“Many cities and towns across the nation rely on sales and income taxes, which have been reduced sharply during the pandemic, leaving communities facing unprecedented losses,” said Clarence E. Anthony, CEO and Executive Director of the National League of Cities (NLC). “Allowing state-run competition against local businesses would further harm small towns and undermine their ability to pay to maintain roads, build schools and keep their communities safe.”
“The restaurant industry was the first forced to shut down and will be the last to fully reopen. So far, 1 in 6 restaurants has closed during the pandemic and the industry has lost $255 billion in expected sales,” said Sean Kennedy, Executive Vice President for Public Affairs at the National Restaurant Association. “As people slowly start to move around the country again in the coming year, the money spent in the restaurants and other small businesses along the way will help put people back to work and will be crucial to rebuilding local economies. Commercialization of rest areas would create more chaos for the industry and slow efforts to fuel our recovery.”
Congress reaffirmed its commitment to helping exit-based businesses thrive and to supporting local communities as recently as 2012, when the Senate voted 86 to 12 to uphold the longstanding federal law prohibiting the sale of food, fuel and other convenience items from Interstate rest areas.
The letter to Congress was signed by NATSO, Asian American Hotel Owners Association, Energy Marketers of America, Franchise Business Services, International Franchise Association, National Association of Convenience Stores, National Automatic Merchandising Association, National Federation of the Blind, National Franchisee Association, National League of Cities, National Restaurant Association, National Retail Federation, National Tank Truck Carriers, Natural Gas Vehicles for America, and the Society of Independent Gasoline Marketers of America.