A little-noticed provision of the House transportation bill would allow states to privatize interstate rest areas, open them up to advertisers, and let them sell a variety of goods "serving the traveling public" -- which under the bill's definition, includes lottery machines. The House of Representatives is expected to vote on the bill, which will face a tough road to becoming law, later this week.
Critics charge that privatizing interstate rest areas, which are generally prohibited from selling commercial goods and services under federal law, would harm gas stations and convenience stores at interchanges.
The bill limits the range of goods and services that could be sold, but "tourism-related" products would be fair game, as would ATMs and lottery machines. The bill also stipulates that states use money raised from privatizing rest areas on other highway stops. That would prevent larger businesses -- a Best Buy, for example -- from securing their own stops on the highway.
Dan Gilligan, president of the Petroleum Marketers Association of America, said he was concerned that maps and lottery machines could be a first step to eventually opening up rest areas to a far wider range of business activities. His organization represents companies that currently operate gas stations along interstates, but at interchanges and full highway exits.
"We see these little slight-of-hand things here," he said. "They're proposing to put in lottery ticket sales and small commercial enterprises -- little things. We're concerned that's sort of a Trojan horse."
An amendment proposed by Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio) would go a step further than the language in the House transportation bill, allowing states to open up stops to any commercial uses as long as they "do not impair the highway." The House Rules Committee will determine Tuesday whether the amendment can be considered.
Privatizing rest stops has long been a goal of of free-market think tanks and rest stop concession operators, who say it would take a financial burden off states and open up more convenient options for travelers. Federal law, however, prohibits states from doing so on federally-funded rest stops that were created after 1960. Commercialized stops along older roads, such as I-95 plazas in Delaware, were grandfathered in under the legislation.
The more expansive language would hurt smaller businesses to the advantage of larger operators who can pay states for rest stop access, Gilligan said. "Everyone has gone now and built and invested in these businesses at the interchanges, and it would be very unfair to pull the rug out of them at this point," he argued.
LaTourette's office did not immediately return a request for comment.