Archive for June, 2009

House Takes First Step in Highway Debate

Wednesday, June 24th, 2009

The House of Representatives took the first step in moving a massive $500 billion highway bill, with the Subcommittee on Highways and Transit approving the measure earlier today. The legislation, introduced earlier this week, preserves the ban on commercialization of rest areas. While this is an initial victory for highway communities, you can expect attempts to weaken the ban at other stages in the legislative process. Prior to the introduction of the legislation, the Partnership to Save Highway Communities sent a letter to all members of the House Transportation Committee requesting to leave the ban on commercialization intact.

The House version of the highway bill, however, faces an uphill battle towards completion. First, the draft of the legislation doesn’t specify how to pay for extra funding for highway programs. With the President on record against an increase in fuel taxes, there are limited options for finding the additional funding for the Highway Trust Fund. Other options include a tax based on the actual number of miles driven, but that would require technological innovations that aren’t quite ready for mass distribution. The other popular option, tolling, won’t raise near enough money to fund the highway system and doesn’t work in more rural areas with long stretches of highway.

Second, the White House has already given up on a reauthorization bill this year, instead suggesting an 18th month extension of the current reauthorization, with some “critical changes” to the law. Given the rapidly approaching deadline of September 30 to complete the bill, it will be difficult to get both the House and Senate to take sufficient action to get a long-term bill to the President’s desk.

Following today’s markup in the Highways Subcommittee, the full Transportation and Infrastructure Committee will take up the bill, most likely in July. With everyone having extended time to digest and analyze the bill, you can expect a flurry of amendments, which could include attempts to commercialize highway rest areas.

Newest Coalition Member Shares Capitol Hill Experiences

Monday, June 22nd, 2009

By Catriona Macdonald, Blind Entrepreneurs Alliance

On May 21st and 22nd, more than 100 blind business owners took to Capitol Hill to meet with Members and their staff to talk about the opportunities that the Randolph-Sheppard Act creates for blind entrepreneurs with food service businesses to serve customers on federal and state properties, including roadside vending on federal and state highways.

Participants attended meetings in groups with others from their state. In total we had 125 meetings with Members and staff in Senate and House personal offices, and Senate and House Committee offices. We met with House Transportation Committee staff, as well as the associate committee staff in the offices of dozens of Transportation Committee members, to talk about the potential impact of rest stop commercialization on blind business owners. Most Members and staff were unaware that, under the Randolph-Sheppard Act, businesses owned and operated by the blind have a priority for permits to manage roadside vending in rest stops along federal and state highways.

Across the country, hundreds of blind entrepreneurs support themselves and their families servicing vending locations under permits that could be lost if rest stops were commercialized. We were warmly received and will continue to provide Congressional offices updates on any pending legislation that would commercialize rest stops and deny business opportunities to blind entrepreneurs.

Virginia Moves Ahead with Commercialization Initiative

Monday, June 8th, 2009

Next week, the Virginia Commonwealth Transportation Board will vote on a proposal to close 19 rest areas in the commonwealth, for a grand savings of $9 million.  As part of this plan to deal with the commonwealth’s budgetary shortfalls, Virginia has reaffirmed its support for commercialized rest areas and will call on Virginia’s congressional delegation to petition the federal government to allow the state to enter into the highway service business.

The Partnership to Save Highway Communities has been active from the first reports of rest area closures, including sending a letter to Governor Tim Kaine in opposition to the idea of commercialization as well as the closure of the rest areas altogether.  Commercialized rest areas will only serve to transfer economic activity from the local highway communities to the state.  The last thing the commonwealth should be doing in a time of such economic hardship is seek to replace thousands of Virginia-based businesses by directly and unfairly competing with them.

Also, you can’t help but question the political motives for proposing to close rest areas in the commonwealth.  The current proposal would save Virginia $9 million annually, or 0.225% of its entire transportation budget.  The $9 million saved each year is less than it costs to pave one half-mile of interstate highway.  However, such a small savings has yielded the largest complaints from motorists, truck drivers and local governments.  By proposing to commercialize Virginia rest areas, the commonwealth leaders have effectively shifted the conversation from Richmond to Washington, DC where they can then blame the federal government for not providing the flexibility to keep these rest areas open.

There are dozens of other programs the Virginia Department of Transportation could cut and keep these rest areas open, but the commonwealth is looking to spark a heated debate and therefore picked a visible target by threatening to close popular rest areas in Virginia.  As the debate moves forward into the summer, just remember – commercializing these rest areas isn’t the only option to save them.  In fact, it’s the worst option for everyone.

Highway Bill Set for Action in June

Monday, June 1st, 2009

State budget shortfalls are requiring governors across the country to search for revenue from any extra source they can find.  A popular initiative to raise money for transportation programs – rest area commercialization – would have the states enter the highway services business, competing with private citizens located at the interstate exits.  With Congress set to discuss legislation regarding highway funding programs sometime this summer, you can expect this issue of commercialization to surface in the debate. 

The House Transportation Committee could publish a draft of the next highway bill as early as this week.  Committee Chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) has set an aggressive schedule for completion of the legislation, and wants to have the House pass the bill by the end of July. 

Before Congress can formally begin the process, it is important they hear from the highway community on the dangers of commercializing the interstate right-of-way.  Click here to view an Action Alert which contains a letter you can email to your Member of Congress in support of preserving the federal prohibition on rest area commercialization. 

Your help is essential in taking a pre-emptive stand against this economically dangerous proposal!