Transportation bill may drive you out of business

Transportation bill may drive you out of business

Like it or not, state transportation departments have come up with an exit plan for many restaurant operators: They go into the restaurant business, you exit it.

Gee, the American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act 2012 sure sounds like something every citizen would want to see Congress pass. And it is—unless you’re one of the thousands of restaurant owners whose businesses rely on Interstate highway travelers to stop in for a bite. The proposed law would give state governments the power to take that business away from you and keep it for themselves.

Current Federal law prohibits the sale of food, fuel and other convenience items from Interstate highway rest areas. That provision was written into the original law so that the new highways would boost local small businesses and aid the economies of the towns through which they passed instead of killing them off.

There are a few exceptions. States with toll roads that double as Interstates are permitted to have commercial areas on their turnpikes and highways. Those states have learned that these commercial areas are lucrative ventures.

Now that state governments, and particularly their departments of transportation, are strapped for cash, they’re eager to commercialize their Interstate rest areas and use the proceeds to fix highways and bridges. They want that federal law changed.

Ohio isn’t the most cash-strapped of states, yet its Congressional delegation is driving this particular idea. Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican, proposed amendment 1742 to the American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act 2012. In the House, where the legislation is known as the Surface Transportation Bill, Ohio Reps. Steve LaTourette, a Republican, and Dennis Kucinich, a Democrat, are pushing a bi-partisan version of a similar amendment.

Here’s how the revised version of Portman’s amendment reads:

Would direct the Secretary to permit a State to acquire, construct, operate, and maintain a rest area along a non-Interstate Federal-aid highway. Would expand the use of rest areas on Interstate and Non-interstate highways including for commercial activities, and allows the revenue generated by rest areas to be spent on any public highway, street or road in the State.”

Which is to say, if you run a restaurant out by the Interstate, or if an Interstate otherwise delivers a steady stream of hungry travelers to your door, be prepared to lose a big part of that business to the states should these amendments go through.

How much would restaurants lose? Virginia Tech’s Transportation Institute studied commercial rest areas and concluded that restaurants near Interstate exits would see their business decrease by 44 percent. Few restaurant operators could take that kind of hit and still keep their doors open. The value of the real estate on which these restaurants sit could plummet, too.

Luckily, restaurant operators have plenty of allies in the fight to keep states from commercializing Interstate rest areas. They include the Petroleum Marketing Association of America, the National Association of Convenience Stores, the National Association of Truck Stop Operators and the Society of Independent Gasoline Marketers of America.

Working together under the banner of the Partnership To Save Highway Communities, these groups have been urging members of Congress to put a bullet in these amendments, pronto.

So far, so good. Portman’s Senate amendment was defeated 86-12 last week, and the LaTourette-Kucinich amendment is stalled in the House.

“This marks a major victory for the 97,000 highway-based businesses across America and the two million people they employ,” says spokesperson Lisa Mullings, head of the Truck Stop Operators group. “This veto sends a clear message that state DOTs cannot fix their state budget problems on the backs of small businesses or at the expense of American jobs and local communities.”

Given how readily last-minute switcheroo amendments find their way into laws, or how previously defeated amendments resurface when House and Senate versions of a bill are reconciled, the fight may not yet be over. The National Restaurant Association is keeping its eye on this battle; if you’re an operator who would be affected if this bill were to become law, you should be watching it, too.