WASHINGTON — Unless someone really has to go, most drivers zip past interstate rest areas without a second thought. Why stop if there’s no gas, no burgers, no sweet icy drinks?
Federal law now prohibits commercial activity at interstate rest stops. But acting at the request of California transportation officials, a congressman is pushing a pilot program that would allow gas stations and burger joints to open at a handful of rest areas in California.
“Many of California’s rest stops are in such disrepair that drivers avoid them as unsanitary and unsafe,” said Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif. “I believe the state should do what it can to fix this problem, and this pilot program should show whether it is feasible to turn these duties over to private vendors in exchange for doing some business there.”
Lewis’ proposal would open up to 10 rest areas to commercial development for 10 years. It would also require clean, well-lit and safe restrooms at no charge to the public, according to a letter to Lewis from California Assembly Speaker Robert M. Hertzberg, who backs the project.
That rankles truck stop owner Jim Caldwell, who wants to keep competition off the interstates. He recently pumped $5.5 million into his Giant Truck Stops business on Interstate 5 north of Los Angeles. He offers Internet access, showers and Popeye’s chicken in addition to gas and diesel fuel to lure travelers to his operation.
“It will be hard to compete against a state-picked business that would have a monopoly at favorable rates,” he said.
The National Association of Truck Stop Owners, which represents more than 1,100 businesses, has mobilized to keep the nation’s interstates gas- and burger-free.
Association President W. Dewey Clower pointed to a University of Maryland study showing businesses at interchanges would lose two-thirds of sales if they faced competition from such “ultraconvenient” rest areas.
The nation’s interstate system, conceived during the Eisenhower administration, is a network of toll-free roads built with federal money. Except on older roads incorporated into the system, services are confined to exits.
On turnpikes and other toll roads, different rules apply. On holiday weekends, cars, trucks and buses jam the limited roadside food and gas outlets at rest stops that thrive on what is essentially a captive audience.
“There’s no competition. You’ve got one choice,” said Rep. JoAnn Emerson, R-Mo., who opposes the proposal by Lewis.
Emerson fears rural communities that depend on business from travelers who exit interstates for services would be hurt by commercialized rest areas. Even a pilot program in California “is a threat to those communities’ economic stability” because it would open the door to similar development in other states, she said.
Lewis, a high-ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee, is trying to add his proposal as a rider to the annual transportation appropriations bill.
Jim Specht, a spokesman for Lewis, said the congressman generally opposes policy riders on spending bills, a procedure that technically violates House rules. But the appropriations bill is the only transportation legislation expected for some time, and Lewis felt it was important to address the rest stop issue as soon as possible, Specht said.
Lewis stressed that he would choose rest areas in the most remote areas, far away from existing businesses.
“In no case are there plans to create a competitor with private truck stops, which offer a wide range of amenities not available at the usual gas station or fast food outlet,” Lewis said.
Associated Press Writer Eugene Tong in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
On the Net:
Caltrans rest areas: http://www.dot.ca.gov/hq/maint/ra/