A new government foray: commerce in highway rest areas

Bob Tippee

Government is encroaching into private affairs in ways other than the big-headline issues like automaker takeovers and fuel selection. It’s even sneaking up on interstate highways.

Businesses that sell fuel, food, and services along US highways worry about pressure to commercialize interstate rights-of-way.

When Congress created the interstate highway system in 1956, local communities naturally worried about harm to commerce. So lawmakers prohibited the offer of commercial services in rest areas built on interstate highways after Jan. 1, 1960.

Some states want that to change.

This year a transportation agency in Virginia approved a resolution supporting sales of food and fuel at rest areas.

California, Oregon, and Washington, are considering an “alternative-fuels corridor” along Interstate 5 and want to be able dispense fuel from government-run facilities in rest areas.

And past highway bills have contained proposals for a pilot program allowing as many as 10 states to test commercial activities in rest areas.

Existing businesses adjacent to interstate highways oppose these initiatives, of course. They’d suffer competitive disadvantages from fuel and food stops more easily accessible by motorists than their own. And they know their new competitors would extract other favors from state patrons.

One idea for the alternative-fuel corridor, for example, is to excuse state-sponsored rest-area businesses from rent payments until they’re profitable.

A group called Partnership to Save Highway Communities is working to keep rest-area commercialization out of highway reauthorization legislation being drafted by the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. The partnership includes the American Petroleum Institute and Petroleum Marketers Association of America.

Another group opposed to commercialization, NATSO, representing travel plazas and truckstops, estimates that more than 60,000 businesses, employing at least 2 million people, have developed along interstate highways.

It cites a 2003 University of Maryland study estimating commercialization would close as many as half those businesses.

To anyone confident about free markets, commercialization is repugnant.

As they appeal for public support, though, opponents would help their cause by encouraging roadside businesses to perform better than many of them do at keeping restrooms clean, windshield rinses clear, and towel dispensers full.

(Online June 19, 2009; author’s e-mail:

This feature will appear online next on July 3.

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