NATSO tells FHWA it’s a bad idea to expand commercial services at rest areas

Jan. 11, 2017

Expanding commercial services at rest areas, including vending, threatens consumers, small business, and localities by undercutting the highway-based businesses that currently operate near the interstate exit interchanges, NATSO, the national association representing truckstops and travel plazas, said in comments filed with the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).

NATSO’s comments were filed in response to FHWA’s solicitation for public input regarding expanding the types of goods and services that may be offered at highway rest areas located on the right-of-way. FHWA specifically requested input as to what constitutes a “vending machine,” noting that technological advancements in this area have been significant in recent years.

NATSO urged FHWA to maintain the existing definition of a vending machine and keep the longstanding prohibition on rest area commercialization foremost in its mind as it reviews public comments.

“FHWA should not permit any food sales at Interstate rest areas that undercut highway-based businesses and localities,” said NATSO President and CEO Lisa Mullings. “Congress enacted the ban on rest area commercialization to avoid state-approved monopolies on the Interstate System as well as to protect off-highway businesses and localities. The underlying purpose behind the general ban on offering automotive and other commercial services on the Interstate right-of-way remains as strong today as it was when the legislation was first enacted.”

In its comments, NATSO said that while vending machine technology has evolved in recent years, a vending machine should be defined as automatically dispensing products after payment is made by the customer and without human interaction.

NATSO considers the best metric for analyzing this issue to be whether vending machines at rest areas are utilized for “ancillary purchases,” referring to whether the public stops at rest areas with the express purpose of buying products from vending machines.

NATSO also noted that expanding commercial services would undercut other FHWA policy objectives, including goals of increasing truck parking and alternative fuel infrastructure options, both of which would be aided by participation from a travel plaza and truckstop industry that is not financially battered by unfair competition from not-for-profit agencies.