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ALEXANDRIA, Va. — A coalition that includes restaurants, fuel retailers, trucking firms, blind entrepreneurs and city governments this week urged lawmakers to oppose commercialization of U.S. Interstate rest areas as Congress considers infrastructure legislation, reported NATSO, the trade association of America's travel plaza and truck stop industry.
"The administration's recent proposal to allow the sale of food, fuel and other commercial services at Interstate rest areas would drain local businesses of customers, communities of much-needed jobs, and city governments of critical tax revenue by putting established businesses in direct competition with state governments," the coalition wrote in a released statement. "At the same time, it would give the state an unfair competitive advantage by granting the state direct access to highway motorists, the groups said in letters to Congress."
This would also threaten the livelihood of blind merchants who service the vending machines at rest areas and hinder the Department of Transportation's goal of expanding commercial truck parking capacity nationwide, the group added.
In April, U.S. Reps. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) and Joe Courtney (D-Conn.) introduced a bill to give states the option to commercialize state-owned rest areas on interstate highways, as CSNews Online reported. The measure would give states the discretion on how to use this new revenue to fund infrastructure projects and highway maintenance.
"Congress effectively privatized highway services in 1960, when Congress prohibited states from offering commercial services at rest areas along the Interstate Highway System, specifically so that private sector entities would grow and provide services to the traveling public," said NATSO President and CEO Lisa Mullings. "Established businesses including travel plazas, convenience stores, restaurants and hotels are already meeting the needs of highway travelers.
"If the government gets in the business of selling food and fuel or other commercial services, local communities will suffer as tax revenues shift to the state; hard-working business owners will lose their customer base; blind entrepreneurs will be out of work and truck drivers will have a harder time finding a safe place to rest. Commercializing Interstate rest areas would create far more problems than it will solve," Mullings said.
In many rural communities located near Interstates, gas stations, restaurants, convenience stores, truck stops and hotels are among the largest local taxpayers, and they help support schools, police and fire departments and other vital public services.
"By commercializing rest areas, cities and towns stand to lose critical revenue used for funding road maintenance, building schools and keeping communities safe," said Clarence E. Anthony, CEO and executive director of the National League of Cities. "Such a move would risk flatlining local property tax revenues, especially impacting the hundreds of small cities and rural communities whose economies depend on highway travelers."
Lea Dias, President of the National Council of State Agencies for the Blind (NCSAB), noted that "NCSAB is extremely concerned about the implications of rest area commercialization for thousands of small family businesses, including those owned and operated by blind entrepreneurs. Under the Randolph-Sheppard Act, a federal law that supports entrepreneurial opportunities for persons who are blind, permits are awarded to blind vendors to manage vending locations at rest areas along federal interstates. Commercialization of these rest areas would result in significant loss of sales opportunities at highway exits, as well as for rest area vending machines, that would be unable to compete with larger rest area food services."
Dias added that the economic disruption to small family businesses would likely shift economic activity from small businesses to large corporations and shift tax revenue away from cities and counties without necessarily increasing net jobs, sales, or taxes paid.
"There is already an unacceptably high unemployment rate of approximately 70 percent among blind Americans," said Mark Riccobono, president of the National Federation of the Blind. "Congress should not contribute to the problem by putting the blind entrepreneurs who service rest area vending machines out of work."
The coalition sent letters to both the House of Representatives and the Senate that were signed by NATSO; Asian American Hotel Owners Association; International Franchise Association; NACS, the Association for Convenience & Fuel Retailing; National Automatic Merchandising Association; National Council of Chain Restaurants; National Federation of the Blind; National Franchisee Association; National League of Cities; National Restaurant Association; National Tank Truck Carriers; Petroleum Marketers Association of America; and the Society of Independent Gasoline Marketers of America.