Great Start, Long Fight in Commercialization Battle

Last week, the House Highways and Transit Subcommittee approved a draft of the House version of the highway bill and the full Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is scheduled to consider the bill sometime in July. The initial draft does not address the issue of rest area commercialization, leaving the ban completely intact, marking a great start in framing the issue during the reauthorization process.

However, it’s much too early to celebrate. The states of California, Washington and Oregon are still pushing their agenda to commercialize their rest areas and offer alternative fuels in addition to food and other services. Some in the Senate view this as a way to quickly develop an infrastructure for alternative fuels and charging infrastructure for electric vehicles. With virtually no demand for these forms of energy, the costs would be offset by other offerings at the newly commercialized rest areas.

While we’re generally pleased with House version of the highway bill, its chances of passage are far from clear at this point. Instead of a long-term full highway bill reauthorization, the Department of Transportation is advocating for a short-term, 18-month extension to current law with “critical reforms” to keep the Highway Trust Fund from insolvency. DOT hasn’t indicated what those reforms are at this point, but given comments by Senator Barbara Boxer, the Senate seems to be leaning towards an extension of the current law. The Obama Administration repeatedly has suggested that some form of privatization should be explored as a revenue source and it isn’t clear what the official Administration position is regarding rest area commercialization.

Budget shortfalls in many states are worsening. The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) is in the process of closing 19 of its 41 rest areas due to funding issues. In a number of public meetings, members of the Commonwealth Transportation Board suggested that commercialization could save the rest areas, and suggested that Virginians should support overturning the ban. Similar funding scenarios are playing out in states across the country, setting the stage for more state agencies to suggest that commercialization is the answer to some of their funding needs.

So as you can see, the battle on this issue has just begun.

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