Give It a Rest, State DOTs

By  Holly Alfano, Vice president of government affairs

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State DOTs, you got a vote. It’s time to put the idea of rest-area commercialization to rest.

The Senate, recognizing the vibrant competitive environment that exists along our nation’s interstate exits, firmly rejected the amendment to the transportation bill offered by Ohio Republican Rob Portman by a lopsided vote of 86-12. It’s time for AASHTO (also known as the American Association of State Transportation Officials) to encourage its members to move on and work on real ideas for balancing bloated budgets.

Convenience retailing has such strong appeal for state DOTs that they’ve tried maneuver after maneuver to skirt the 1956 law prohibiting commercial rest areas on the Interstate Highway System.

The state DOTs in California, Washington and Oregon tried to convince the Federal Highway Administration to assume broad new powers to waive the federal statute prohibiting commercial rest areas under a secretive federal program called “Special Experimental Project.” One DOT even moved a boundary to accommodate a doughnut stand. And for decades, they’ve begged Congress to take it up. It makes one wonder what would happen if the same energy and creativity could be channeled into cost cutting.

Finally, this last time, AASHTO and others convinced Ohio Republican Rob Portman to bring the matter up for a vote. Sen. Portman’s ill-fated amendment would have allowed state DOTs to open their rest areas as your new competitors. Had Sen. Portman been successful, little time would pass before most states would seek to bid out the development of the rest areas to concessions contractors such as HMS Host or Aramark.

But fortunately, the Senate handed Sen. Portman a decisive defeat—with only 11 other senators supporting the amendment when it was offered on the Senate floor.

Though the issue of rest-area commercialization has been talked about almost since the law banning it was created in 1956, last month our industry saw the first-ever floor vote on the issue.

The Power of Constituents

For at least two years, a huge coalition of associations and companies has been gearing up for this battle, not knowing exactly when it would come. More than 50 trade associations, including NATSO, NACS, PMAA and the National Restaurant Association, had to mobilize their members in just a few days when Senator Portman’s amendment was introduced.

The response was incredibly impressive. Offices on Capitol Hill told association lobbyists that they heard from more constituents about rest-area commercialization than any other issue related to the transportation bill. There’s nothing like grass-roots engagement to affect the outcome of a vote, and the 86 senators who voted against the amendment surely got the message that Portman’s amendment would have had devastating consequences for restaurants, gas stations, convenience stores and truckstops up and down the nation’s highways.

For retailers who rely on interstate traffic, it’s no secret that location is the prime driver of a retailer’s success. With commercial rest areas along the interstate right-of-way, businesses operating at the exits would see a significant loss of sales.

The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute studied the issue in 2010. By analyzing business development on corridors with commercial rest areas (that were grandfathered or that operate on toll roads), the researchers found that a single commercial rest area would siphon off up to 46% of the sales from a gas stations at the exits, with a 35% decline at truckstops and a 44% percent decline at restaurants.

As this issue of CSP goes to press, a similar amendment is pending in the House of Representatives, offered by Rep. Steven LaTourette, another Republican from Ohio. While the outcome is uncertain, one can hope that leadership in the House will recognize the Senate’s sound defeat of the idea, and put the idea of restarea commercialization to rest.

For information about the issue of rest area commercialization, please visit www.jobsnextexit.com.  

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