The Bush administration’s recent proposal to commercialize rest areas in 10 states would devastate highway-based businesses, such as travel centers, truckstops, restaurants, gasoline stations, convenience stores and lodging establishments, according to NATSO, the nonprofit organization representing America’s travel plaza and truckstop industry.
The Department of Transportation released its proposal this week for reforming federal surface transportation programs, ahead of next year’s scheduled reauthorization of the 2005 highway funding bill. If passed, the proposal would suffocate existing interstate businesses in favor of just one business hand-picked by the state.
"It is astonishing that the administration continues to back a proposal that would have such detrimental effects on drivers, highway-based businesses and local communities," said Lisa Mullings, President and CEO of NATSO.
This proposal threatens many interstate-based businesses that depend on the free movement of interstate traffic, not to mention their employees and the local governments which need taxes generated from these businesses. The reason is simple and undeniable: it is virtually impossible for a business at the interchange to compete with a state-sanctioned business located directly on the shoulder of the road.
Rest area commercialization will not result in the sale of additional hamburgers or gallons of fuel sold. "It will merely shift the point of sale away from America’s rural communities where businesses have been established over the last 50 years, to the one new entity able to achieve market dominance overnight by virtue of their convenient location on the shoulder of the highway," Mullings said.
In its proposal, the DOT acknowledges that current law prohibits commercialization because it would give an "unfair advantage to the businesses located directly on the interstate over those that are located at an exit off the interstate." However, the administration has disregarded the devastating effects that unfair advantage would have on communities and instead focused on the quick capital the projects could generate for the state.
While the state might make more money, the tax base of local governments would shrink. By 2010, interchange businesses will contribute an estimated $1.8 billion-plus in property taxes to local governments annually, funds that are used for education and police and fire protection.
Under the guise of improving public safety, the proposal would direct participating states to incorporate improvements and expansion of truck parking facilities at the newly privatized rest areas. However, commercialization would actually reduce the overall number of spaces available for heavy trucks.
"Truckstops and travel plazas provide 90 percent of this nation’s truck parking. There is no doubt that we will see a severe truck parking shortage if these businesses are forced to close their doors," Mullings said.
In addition to promoting commercialization, the DOT proposal strongly supports the use of tolling and congestion pricing by state governments to fund highway programs, which NATSO also opposes. "Tolls represent a system of double taxation for the commercial trucking industry, which already pays 40% of all highway user fees," Mullings said.
In addition, tolls divert traffic onto secondary roads that are not equipped to handle this traffic, resulting in higher accident rates and damage to these secondary roads. "By the year 2010, small business owners who provide services to highway users along the interstate are expected to employ over two million Americans and generate nearly $200 billion in sales annually. We want to ensure the interests of business owners along the highways are taken into consideration," Mullings said.
Over 70,000 businesses have sprung up at interchanges across America, and NATSO will continue its ongoing fight against commercialization to ensure those businesses are able to continue serving their communities and the nation’s drivers.