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Ban on interstate business may be relaxed

Virginia and other cash-strapped states are closing rest areas and want to let private businesses take them over. Fast-food chains and gas stations oppose the idea as a 'dangerous precedent.'

August 31, 2009|Richard Simon

WASHINGTON — Which will it be: fewer places to stop on the highway to catch 40 winks, or fast food galore at rest areas? That's the choice facing Congress as it considers whether to relax a decades-old ban on businesses along the nation's interstates.

The restriction was instituted during construction of the highway system, in response to community fears that motorists would bypass local businesses, devastating their economies. Only enterprises that existed before 1960 were exempt.

But now officials in Virginia, one of a number of financially strapped states closing rest areas, want to privatize the sites in order to maintain an important public convenience -- and maybe even make money.

The Partnership to Save Highway Communities, whose members include the Assn. of Kentucky Fried Chicken Franchisees, the Society of Independent Gasoline Marketers and McDonald's Corp., has opposed Virginia's efforts.

It would "set a dangerous precedent," the group said, "with any state experiencing budget shortfalls seeing commercialization as a potential solution."

And changing the law, said Ben Jarratt, a Burger King franchisee in northern Virginia, would definitely hurt existing businesses that set up shop near interstate exits "on the good faith that there would not be commercialization directly on the highway."

The dispute has heated up this summer as motorists have found orange barrels blocking the entrances to 18 of Virginia's 42 rest areas.

"We want tourists to come . . . it's going to be the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, and we want to close our rest stops?" Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) said incredulously.

AAA supports Virginia's effort to commercialize the rest stops if that guarantees they will stay open. The group has said the facilities are crucial to motorists' safety, since they often are a refuge for drowsy drivers.

"Talk about distracted and dangerous driving. I would not want to share the road with an overtired driver who is trying to relieve themselves in a bottle while driving 65 miles an hour," John B. Townsend II, AAA Mid-Atlantic's manager of public and government affairs, said in a statement.

But Holly Alfano, vice president of government affairs for NATSO, a trade group that represents truck stops and travel plazas, said businesses off the interstate could not compete with commercial operations at rest areas.

At the same time, said Lisa J. Mullings, the group's chief executive, motorists should not have to choose between commercialization and drives of 100 miles or more between rest areas. "We think that the rest areas should remain open," she said. "We think that is something that the truckers and other drivers pay for with their fuel taxes."

But, said Jeffrey Caldwell, the Virginia Department of Transportation's chief of communications: "A lot of the folks who have spoken up in opposition to our closure of the rest areas have said they're not comfortable getting off the interstate, especially in the middle of the night, in areas they're not familiar with." A lot of motorists, he added, also don't want to take the time to get off the interstate.

Whether the law is changed could depend on which side has more political horsepower.

Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, an advocate of the commercialization of rest stops, is chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Against the idea is Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.), the influential chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

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richard.simon@latimes.com

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