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Rethinking Interstate Rest Areas

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Motorists and truckers who drive long distances on America’s most important highways—the 49,000 miles of Interstates—experience a startling difference between the 5 percent of them that were built originally with toll-revenue finance and the other 95 percent that were built with 90 percent funding from federal highway user taxes. 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 (both eat-in and take-out), miscellaneous minor shopping, and parking for both cars and trucks.

But on the fuel-tax-funded Interstates, motorists and 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.

A major 2018 study of the future of the Interstate Highway System, authorized by Congress and carried out by an expert committee of the Transportation Research Board, concluded that most of the Interstate system is nearing the end of its useful life and needs to be reconstructed and modernized for the 21st century. While that report focused mostly on pavement and bridge conditions, traffic congestion, and potential widening of some corridors, it did not call attention to the inadequate “rest areas,” especially on long stretches of rural Interstates.

This policy brief suggests that a 21st-century Interstate system should have state-of-the-art service plazas in addition to new pavement, improved bridges, and redesigned and rebuilt interchanges in many urban areas.

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 (LNG) and hydrogen.

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 (e.g., on historic U.S. Route 66). 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.

The ban is in Section 111 of Title 23 of the U.S. Code. It provides that any construction project on an Interstate highway receiving federal aid “shall contain a clause providing that the State will not add any points of access to, or exit from the project in addition to those [originally] approved by the Secretary [of Transportation] in the plans for such project, without the prior approval of the Secretary.” The clause must also say that “the State will not permit automotive service stations or other commercial establishments for serving motor vehicle users to be constructed or located on the rights-of-way of the Interstate System and will not change the boundary of any right-of-way on the Interstate System to accommodate the construction of, or afford access to, an automotive service station or other commercial establishment.” But Section 111 excludes any commercial establishment that was in existence before January 1, 1960. Note that this language prohibits not only gas stations and eating establishments at rest areas on the Interstate but also any new development such as a service plaza that would have direct access (entry and exit) to the Interstate right-of-way.

To be clear on terminology, in this policy brief the term “rest area” means a place on an Interstate highway with no commercial services, such as eating establishments or fuel services. A “service plaza” means a place on an Interstate that offers an array of commercial services, which is currently legal only on toll roads that were not developed with federal funding and had service plazas in existence prior to 1960.

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.

For most of the 60 years since the commercial services ban was enacted, there was not a critical mass of support for its repeal. As of 2021, that critical mass may finally emerge to support this long-overdue change.

Full Policy Brief: Rethinking Interstate Rest Areas


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