James A. "Jimmy" Haslam III, CEO of Pilot Flying J and a board member of the National Truck Stop Operators Association, is urging state and federal lawmakers to block further "commercialization" of highway rest stops.
Current federal law generally prohibits states from setting up commercial operations at rest stops along Interstate highways except those states — mostly in the Northeast — where Interstates were in place before 1960. But some states and organizations are pushing for change in the law by Congress at a time when state governments are seeking new revenue.
"While at first glance this may seem like an easy way for state DOTs to generate revenue, the fact is it will devastate private businesses like mine that for the last 50 years have operated under the current law and established locations at the highway exits," said Haslam in his letter. "The advantageous location of state-owned commercial rest areas establishes virtual monopolies on the sale of commercial services to highway travelers."
Tennessee currently has 18 rest areas and will spend $3,752,548 to operate them this fiscal year, according to TDOT spokeswoman Lyndsay Botts. The state contracts with CMRA Community Rehabilitation Agencies of Tennessee to clean the facilities, provide tourist information and the like
The state also operates 14 "welcome centers" along the state's borders at a cost of $6.2 million o Tennessee taxpayers for the current year, Botts said in an email. The workers there are employees of the state Department of Tourism.
The only services offered at the rest areas and welcome centers — other than information, restrooms and a place to relax with picnic tables — are vending machines operated by Tennessee Business Enterprises Program Services for the Blind.
In contrast to Tennessee, where the combined cost of operations is about $10 million per year, other states are making money off their rest stops. In Delaware, where full commercialization is allowed under federal law, a contract guarantees the state at least $1.6 million per year and perhaps more, depending on the contractor's profits, according to a Stateline article. The contractor spent $35 million building a 42,000-square foot welcome center last year, the article says.