In a recently released policy brief, the Reason Foundation’s Robert Poole suggests that the 21st-century Interstate System should have state-of-the-art service plazas, and that three factors may lead to support for reconsideration of the no-commercial-services rule for interstate rest areas. Here’s what he had to say.
On the tolled corridors (such as the New York Thruway, the Ohio Turnpike and the Indiana Toll Road), large commercial service plazas are spaced at intervals along the roadway, offering various combinations of vehicle refueling, food and beverage service, miscellaneous shopping, and parking for both cars and trucks.
But on the fuel-tax-funded interstates, truckers can find only “rest areas” which offer restrooms, vending machines and a modest amount of parking. If they want any commercial services, interstate users must exit the highway and look for gas stations, restaurants, and other services, which range from being located close to the off-ramp to being several miles away. Longer distances are often involved to reach full-service truck stops, which offer overnight truck parking, restrooms with showers, and restaurant services.
The ban on commercial services at interstate rest areas dates back to the late 1950s and early 1960s when the first long-distance interstates were being built. In most rural areas, the new interstate would bypass many smaller towns and cities, whose gas stations and eating establishments depended on long-distance travelers for a significant part of their business.
Lobbying from those interests persuaded Congress to help out by banning toll-road style commercial service plazas, giving local merchants the opportunity to set up shop at or near off-ramps on the new Interstates to recoup lost business. This new law in 1960 amended the 1956 law authorizing federal funding for Interstate construction. It remains in effect today, strongly supported by existing truckstop operators and franchise operators of food and fuel businesses at or near off-ramps.
Three factors may lead to support for reconsideration of the no-commercial-services rule for Interstate rest areas. One is the large and growing shortage of safe overnight parking for long-distance trucking. A second factor is the trend of state transportation departments to close some of their rest areas, due to budget cuts. And the third is the coming need to charge electric passenger vehicles and trucks and to refuel those powered by non-traditional fuels such as liquified natural gas and hydrogen.
1. Shortage of Overnight Truck Parking
With drivers complying with hours of service requirements, there is a growing problem of commercial truck drivers finding safe and legal places to park for hours of rest.
In response to the growing need for large amounts of additional overnight truck parking spaces, the Federal Highway Administration and state departments of transportation have focused on compiling data on the amount and location of existing legal truck parking spaces. There are several efforts nationwide, however the problem is they only seek to make full use of existing parking slots, which are mostly at truck stops and highway rest areas.
That is part of the problem, but the larger problem is the need to expand the total amount of safe overnight truck parking.
2. Budget Cuts Leading to Rest Area Closures
At various points in time between 2009 to 2016 , some state DOTs have proposed repealing the ban due to budget constraints that led to rest area closures, and their interest in commercialization. The proposal never made it very far.
A number of state DOTs would like the opportunity to revamp and upgrade their rest areas to offer commercial services and generate revenues to support their modernization and operations.
3. Need for Electric Charging Infrastructure
Both battery-electric vehicles and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles need to be replenished after a certain number of miles, whether by charging their battery packs or refueling with hydrogen.
The United States is in a situation resembling the early days of automobiles in 1920 when gas stations were few and far between. “Range anxiety” is a problem already well-known to electric vehicle owners—the fear of running out of battery capacity before reaching a charging station.
With the interstate highways accounting for 25% of all vehicle-miles of travel, it would be highly desirable for charging stations to be available at interstate rest areas—but that would be illegal under current law, due to the ban on commercial services at such locations.
One other service that could be provided at commercialized rest areas, along with expanded truck parking, is electrical hookups to operate sleeper-cab heating and air conditioning
Electric hookups could reduce or eliminate the use of fuel (and the accompanying pollution and noise), but the electricity would obviously have to be paid for—hence it would be a commercial service.
The decades-old ban on commercial services at Interstate rest areas was dubious at the outset, but in the post-petroleum-fueled era that is ahead of us, it is clearly past its expiration date. As part of either the 2021 reauthorization of the FAST Act or an overall infrastructure bill, repeal of this anachronistic law should be a priority.
Commercialized rest areas will expand much-needed truck parking capacity and will provide ideal locations for EV charging stations as part of the expanding national network. They will also offer motorists additional refueling and meal options on their highway trips, as is appropriate in a free-market economy.
About the Author: Robert W. Poole Jr. is director of transportation policy and the Searle Freedom TrustTransportation Fellow at Reason Foundation, a national public policy think tank based in Los Angeles. Poole has advised the Federal Highway Administration, the Federal Transit Administration, the White House Office of Policy Development and National Economic Council, the Government Accountability Office, and the California, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Washington State Departments of Transportation.