Blind vendors among NATSO cohort urging Congress to oppose commercialization of highway rest areas

Feb. 26, 2021

NATSO Inc. this week urged lawmakers to oppose efforts to commercialize interstate rest areas as Congress considers infrastructure legislation, according to a press release.

Alexandria, VA-based NATSO represents truck stops and travel plazas, and a diverse coalition that includes restaurants, fuel retailers, city governments, trucking firms and blind entrepreneurs.

The groups, which represent hundreds of thousands of mostly small businesses that operate near the Interstate Highway System, urged lawmakers to reject proposals to carve out any exceptions to the longstanding ban that prohibits state departments of transportation from unfairly competing against the private sector by selling food, fuel or other commercial services, including electric vehicle charging, at Interstate rest areas.

America's cities, restaurants, hotels, travel plazas, fuel retailers, convenience stores and blind merchants have been economically harmed by the Covid-19 pandemic. Fiscal losses by the nation's businesses have led to unprecedented unemployment and massive municipal deficits. 

The private sector's ability to operate in a competitive and robust marketplace ensures its ability to provide jobs, generate critical tax revenues and further enhance investments in alternative fuels, the groups said in a letter to the members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.  

Upending a long-established policy prohibiting commercial rest areas threatens the livelihood of the nation's blind merchants, who service the vending machines at rest areas, and would hinder the Department of Transportation's goal of expanding commercial truck parking capacity nationwide, NATSO underscored.

"The ban on commercial services at Interstate rest areas exists in order to encourage private commercial activities in off-highway communities," said NATSO vice president of government affairs David Fialkov.

"Carving out an exception for EV charging infrastructure,” Fialkov added, “would not only discourage existing refueling stations throughout the country from investing in charging infrastructure, but it will signal to prospective EV drivers that they will not be able to access the same amenities and fueling experience to which they are accustomed. This is the wrong signal for Congress to send."

Congress privatized highway services in 1960, when it prohibited states from offering commercial services at rest areas along the Interstate Highway System specifically so that private sector entities would grow and provide services to the traveling public. This includes the establishment of fees for electric vehicle charging.

Established businesses including travel plazas, convenience stores, restaurants and hotels are already meeting the needs of highway travelers, NATSO said.

"Any efforts to commercialize rest areas threaten the livelihoods of blind entrepreneurs in the United States who depend on revenue from rest area vending machines," said Mark Riccobono, president of the National Federation of the Blind. "With unemployment among blind Americans exceeding 70%, permitting state-financed food operations that will cause blind entrepreneurs to lose their businesses is unconscionable.

“Congress enacted the Randolph-Sheppard Act to provide blind people with remunerative employment, enlarge our economic opportunities, and encourage self-support through the operation of vending facilities,” Riccobono continued. “Commercializing rest areas is contrary to that intent, and the National Federation of the Blind joins with other stakeholders in fighting these ill-conceived efforts to do so." 

The Randolph-Sheppard Act, enacted in 1936 with President Franklin Roosevelt’s signature, is a federal law that gives vendors who are legally blind priority over other vendors to operate concession services or vending facilities on most federal property. Nearly every state has adopted a similar law; the state regulations are often referred to as “mini-Randolph-Sheppard Acts.”