AASHTO Journal, 30 September 2016
The Federal Highway Administration is taking public comments through Dec. 27 on such questions as what constitutes a vending machine, as it responds to requests to clarify the types of commercial activity that may be allowed at interstate highway rest areas.
That informational request touches on a sensitive economic issue as states try to find more ways to fund transportation programs and travel services like rest areas, but as off-highway businesses such as travel plazas and restaurants try to head off commercialization of roadside rest areas that might take some of their customers.
It also comes at a time when states are trying to develop more on-highway rest areas for freight truckers under FHWA programs Congress authorized last year in the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act. (See related story in this week’s Journal.)
The FHWA said in a Sept. 27 Federal Register notice that federal law and regulation prohibits over-the-counter sales of merchandise in rest areas located on the Interstate Highway System. And it limits allowable commercial activity at those facilities to a short list of business such as advertising, sale of items to promote tourism or lottery tickets and vending machines dispensing food, drink and other articles allow by the state’s transportation department.
“Recently, several state departments of transportation have raised questions about what constitutes a vending machine and consequently what can or should be allowed in interstate rest areas,” the FHWA said.
It turns out, the notice added, that neither the federal law that limits commercial activities in rest areas or subsequent regulation has provided such a definition for more than 30 years, a period when transaction processing machines changed significantly from pull levers and coin slots to electronic payments and barcode-scanning kiosks.
But that is just part of what the FHWA wants commenters to address.
The notice said: “The FHWA is interested in gathering public comments on how certain provisions of the current law should be interpreted and applied in consideration of advancements in technology and the interests of the states. Specifically, FHWA is interested in comments concerning the definition of vending machines. The FHWA is also interested in public input concerning the provision of law that allows the sale of items designed to promote tourism in the state, currently limited to books, DVDs and other media.”
It guides potential commenters with some questions the agency wants to explore, including what types of “media” could be sold at a rest area, whether agricultural products that promote tourism could be included and whether there are “other commercial activities that should be allowed consistent with federal law.”
And, the FHWA asks in a final question: “Is there a need for additional federal guidance on commercial activities in interstate rest areas, and if so, what should the guidance address?”