Losing Sleep Over Rest Areas

Truckstops fear a new push to commercialize interstate rest areas

Published in CSP Daily News

By  Mitch Morrison, Vice President & Group Editor

WASHINGTON -- Truckstops and travel centers operating on exits off interstate highways are facing their biggest threat in nearly a decade.

The American Association of State Highway & Transportation Officials (AASHTO)--the national lobbying arm of the state departments of transportation--is asking Congress to circumvent a 60-year-old ban that prohibits the commercialization of rest areas. And at least one prominent member of the House, who has long stood on the side of truckstops, says he is reconsidering his position.

U.S. Representative Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), [image-nocss] deputy Republican whip and a member on the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, said that while he is not prepared to overturn the commercialization ban, he is sensitive to the severe shortfalls confronting many state DOTs.

"I'm not a proponent of lifting the ban, but we're in a desperate need to raise funds for highway projects. I know truckstops will come in here and raise holy hell with me for saying that," he said during a recent interview with CSP Daily News and other trade press. "I haven't fully embraced it, and don't quote me as saying I've changed my position. But I'm certainly going to take a look.... We need to see what the benefits are to the states."

The battle, in short, pits cash-strapped states seeking tens of millions of dollars in revenue against commercial businesses operating at interstate exists who risk losing substantial patronage as motorists would pull into stores along the interstate highway system without needing to exit.

With intense speculation that a measure could surface before Memorial Day weekend to permit development of rest areas, a number of trade groups led by NATSO (formerly the National Association of Truckstop Operators) is mounting an aggressive campaign to preserve the status quo.

"All the businesses along the interstate highway system would be affected," said Holly Alfano, vice president of government relations at NATSO, which represents more than 200 businesses operating 1,400 truckstops. "It's not just a truckstop issue. The gas stations and c-store segment and [quick-serve restaurants] are also at risk."

She added, "It would be devastating to businesses along the interstate. They invested top dollar for the real estate...and they never thought they'd be competing against the government operating out of an advantageous location on the right-of-way that only the government has access to."

When told of Shuster's statements, Alfano said, "He's someone we've definitely talked to in the past and is someone we'll be talking to in the future."

Approximately 97,000 businesses operate along the interstate highway system, including more than 60,000 restaurants, 14,000 gas stations and more than 11,000 convenience stores, according to the Partnership to Save Highway Communities, a coalition of approximately 50 state and national associations, including NATSO, NACS, SIGMA and PMAA.

Funding Options

Asked about other potential remedies to address highway budget shortfalls, including raising the federal excise tax on gasoline, which sits at 18.4 cents, Shuster said only a few options make political sense. "There's certainly no appetite for an increase in the gasoline tax," he said. "You wouldn't get 100 votes."

For Shuster, reversing course on developing rest areas will depend on a comprehensive look at how much the states would generate by commercializing these interstate tracts, whether the windfall would be one time or long term, and the impact to private industry that has prospered along the interstate's numerous exits.

That said, Shuster said he was optimistic that after an initial blow, travel centers and other businesses would rebound even if rest areas were commercialized. "In the long run, there's enough for everyone," he said, noting long-term projections for increased freight trucking.

As for NATSO's Alfano, though sympathetic to the state DOTs' financial plight, she is steadfast in holding firm the current commercialization ban. "Over the years, this has been reaffirmed by Congress repeatedly.... Just because states are having short-term budget issues, I'm hoping they're not going to reverse this but to look at the long term...and not pull the rug out of small businesses."

By Mitch Morrison, Vice President & Group Editor
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