If you’re like me, you may have had an experience like this. You’re driving after dark on an Interstate highway and you need a good cup of coffee. If you’re on the Florida Turnpike or the Indiana Toll Road, you could stop at the next service plaza and take your choice at an array of retail outlets. But on 95 percent of the Interstate highways, your only option is to wait for an offramp with signs pointing in either direction to gas stations and fast-food places up to several miles away. Some may be closed, and some may be hidden away in shopping plazas.
If your travels have included toll roads, you may wonder why 95 percent of all Interstate miles don’t have service plazas like the turnpikes. The answer is that it’s against federal law. Back in 1960, when the first Interstates were being built, gas station and restaurant owners along the old highways––like U.S. 66 and U.S. 41, which went right through towns and cities—feared bankruptcy because the Interstates bypassed all those towns. So they lobbied Congress to forbid service plazas on the new Interstates. This gave them the chance to stay in business by building new gas stations and fast-food outlets clustered around Interstate offramps. The fledgling truck stop industry allied itself with the small-town merchants, and built their truck stops as near as they could to Interstate offramps.
Today, 61 years later, a lot of things have changed. There’s a huge national shortage of safe overnight truck parking spaces, due to commercial trucking growing faster than land-constrained truck stops. It’s also the result of long-overdue federal enforcement of driver hours-of-service regulations, which drivers can no longer evade thanks to electronic (rather than paper) logbooks.
Second, there’s a growing need for electric vehicle (E.V.) charging stations, which have been built mostly in urban areas for commuters and service trucks, but hardly exist on major long-distance highways. The most convenient location for range-anxious E.V. motorists would be at Interstate rest areas. But unless the electricity were given away, that’s a commercial service and hence against the law.
A new Reason Foundation study says it’s time for the federal ban to be junked. It discusses both the truck parking shortage and the need for convenient E.V. charging stations as the rationale, and it’s part of the Foundation’s vision of a second-generation Interstate highway system, run mostly as toll roads with first-class commercial service plazas. But before we can even get to the question of toll-financing the rebuilt Interstates, the 61-year-old ban has to go.
The study envisions a coalition of strange bedfellows to lead the way: portions of the trucking industry and the large environmental movement that seeks faster electrification of cars and trucks. Last year, the E.V. crowd managed to get into legislation an exemption from the commercial-services ban specifically for E.V. charging stations. The bill passed the House on a party-line vote but was not taken up by the Senate. The Biden administration’s $2.3 trillion American Jobs Plan includes subsidies for E.V. charging, but is so far silent on whether they could be installed on the Interstates.
Fighting back will be the National Association of Truck Stop Operators (NATSO), which has successfully defeated previous bills to repeal the ban. Those bills have been desired by state transportation agencies that have no revenue source to maintain their rest areas (which provide only restrooms, vending machines, and a modest amount of parking). Historically, most of the trucking organizations have sided with NATSO, but the owners/operators are already on board for repeal.
Commercialization could actually turn out to be a win-win for truck stops, since they would be in a good position to bid for public-private partnerships offered by state departments of transportation to develop and operate new service plazas, some of which might be truck-only. And 2021 is finally the year when Congress will enact some kind of infrastructure bill. Opening the door for real service plazas on the Interstates has a fighting chance of being included.