Congress rejects pilot program to commercialize California rest areas

| 12/13/2001

Congress killed a provision earlier this month in the $60 billion transportation appropriations bill that would have created a pilot program to commercialize California interstate rest areas. The truckstop industry opposed the provision because of increased competition that could be created.

The proposal, which would have allowed the state to avoid federal prohibitions on private development of interstate rest areas, was left off the revised version of the spending bill that passed the House and Senate. Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-CA) attached the provision to the bill at the request of state transportation officials. Lewis was pushing the pilot program to allow fuel stations and fast food restaurants at selected rest areas in California.

"Many of California's rest stops are in such disrepair that drivers avoid them as unsanitary and unsafe," Lewis told news reporters. "I believe the state should do what it can to fix this problem, and the pilot program would show whether it is feasible to turn these duties over to private vendors in exchange for doing some business there."

The national association of truckstop operators, Natso, praised Congress' decision to exclude the provision, saying rest area commercialization threatened to close California truckstops. Lewis refuted the claim, clarifying that "In no case are there plans to create a competitor with private truckstops, which offer a wide range of amenities not available at the usual gas station or fast food outlet." Lewis said his plan would have encouraged the state to choose rest areas far away from existing businesses.

John Siebert, project manager for the OOIDA Foundation, says Natso's claims that commercializing rest areas could spell doom for truckstops is unfounded. "A number of states have privatized rest areas and it seems to work fine," says Siebert. "Truckstops are solely looking at their bottom line, not what's best for truckers. Natso just doesn't want anything messing with their supply of customers. They are going to be against anything that might take customers elsewhere."

Siebert says commercializing rest areas by putting a McDonald's in isn't going to run truckstops out of business. "There are things a truckstop provides that fast food restaurants do not," he says. "Truckstops provide specific amenities like showers, computers, faxes, etc, that truckers will always use to maximize their stops. Truckers prefer the company of other truckers and want to go where they can do as many non-driving functions in one place. The only place to do it is at a truckstop."

Lewis said he might try to resurrect the measure in the future, especially if California transportation officials continue to support the idea.
--Keith Goble