State DOTs Explore Rest Area Commercialization Options

The truckstop industry’s “hardnosed and successful opposition” was cited as one of the primary obstacles that must be overcome by state Department of Transportation (DOT) officials seeking to commercialize rest areas as a way to generate revenues for states facing budget issues.  Yet despite the devastating economic impact rest area commercialization would have on small towns and business along the nation’s interstates, transportation officials seem determined to press forward.

During a roundtable discussion last weekend, members of the American State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) explored several options for offering commercial services at rest areas.  As state budgets continue to lag, officials in several states are facing decisions about closing rest areas and are looking at the cites as potential revenue generators.

NATSO Vice President of Government Affairs Holly Alfano informed the group that two million jobs depend on traffic from motorists exiting interstates and that many of those jobs would be lost under options being touted as solutions to state revenue shortfalls. In reality, she pointed out, rest area commercialization would give state-controlled plazas a virtual monopoly on travelers’ food, beverage, retail and fuel purchases, stripping revenues from the communities along the interstate.

Alfano said that NATSO and its coalition representing 60,000 highway businesses would continue to vigorously oppose any effort to relax or overturn the 50 year prohibition.  While acknowledging the budgetary issues faced by states, she told the group that interstate-based businesses also have been affected by the recession, experiencing a significant decline in traffic at their locations over the last two years.

AASHTO members cited the upcoming highway reauthorization as an opportunity to repeal or change the law prohibiting commercial services at rest areas.  Some of the options that AASHTO members explored during the session included:

  • Outright repeal of the commercialization ban
  • Passage of a law that would allow limited pilot projects
  • Compromise legislation that would allow commercialization in areas where there are no competing private sector businesses
  • Development of commercial facilities off the right of way accessible by pedestrian-only access from the rest area facility.

The group also discussed the feasibility of states submitting SEP-15 applications, which involves petitioning the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) for approval as an “experimental project.”  The  states of California, Washington and Oregon previously submitted a SEP-15 application to FHWA but the agency never acted upon it.

As an alternative to commercialization, a Utah official shared his state’s experience implementing the Interstate Oasis program, which allows exit-based businesses to supplant rest areas by offering motorists services they commonly seek at rest areas such as 24-hour restroom access and truck parking.  Arizona had attempted to develop the program, but they were unable to recruit businesses to participate.  Alfano suggested that a dialogue between business owners and the state could be established determine if the program could be made more appealing to businesses.

Asked if NATSO members would ever consider commercialization as a business opportunity, Alfano responded that they most likely would not.  Interstate businesses have already invested millions in the development of their exit-based locations, and would not be willing to jeopardize those investments to become a tenant in a state-owned commercial enterprise, she told the group. She added that that existing commercialized rest area contracts have only been awarded to large corporations.

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