Congresswoman Claudia Tenney Urges FHWA to Address New York State’s Commercial Rest Areas

Congresswoman Claudia Tenney (R-N.Y.) on Aug. 8 urged the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) to hold New York state accountable for its violation of the federal law prohibiting commercial rest areas.

Congresswoman Claudia Tenney (R-N.Y.) urged the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) to hold New York state accountable for its violation of the federal law prohibiting commercial rest areas.

The New York Department of Transportation has been operating two commercial rest areas in violation of federal statute 23 USC 111(c), one of which is located on Interstate 81 in Binghamton, N.Y.

Federal law prohibits a state from selling commercial services at and rest areas that are built after 1960. The law sets forth specific, narrow exceptions to this broad prohibition, including promotional books, DVDs and “other media” that promotes tourism within a state. In addition, states are permitted to sell food and drink in vending machines.

In 2011, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced an initiative to increase the sale of items produced within the state, including a proposal related to the construction of rest areas along interstate highways to showcase New York-made products.

New York state officials claim that sales of certain foods not sold from vending machines are a "form of media" and "promote tourism" and thus fall under a narrow exception to the general ban on commercial sales at rest areas. This claim is a clear misinterpretation of the law with serious implications for the travel plaza industry.

“Commercialization of rest areas on interstate highways is a direct violation of established federal law. Local communities and small businesses across New York State depend on revenue from interstate traffic. Promoting a state run monopoly that gives private entities no chance of competing threatens the livelihood of small businesses within the 22nd District and across the state that are located just off the interstate,” Congresswoman Tenney said in a statement. Congresswoman Tenney said in a statement: “While I support efforts to increase the sale and distribution of New York State products, Gov. Cuomo’s decision to construct these rest areas along the interstate violates federal law and harms local businesses in already struggling Upstate communities. Today, I am urging the Federal Highway Administration to proceed with efforts to work with New York to rollback the commercialization of rest areas and ensure compliance with federal law.”

NATSO along with its member location TravelCenters of America, the New York State Committee of Blind Vendors, the Society of Independent Gasoline Marketers of America (SIGMA), Park Outdoor Advertising and the National Council of Chain Restaurants commended Congresswoman Tenney for urging FHWA to bring New York into compliance with Federal law.

“The travel plaza community is grateful to Congresswoman Tenney for her leadership in working to bring the state of New York into compliance with the federal law prohibiting the sale of food and other commercial services at rest areas on the Interstate right-of-way,” said NATSO President and CEO Lisa Mullings. “As Congresswoman Tenney has said, by violating this prohibition and putting established businesses in direct competition with the state, New York is making it harder for businesses to create jobs and is draining already cash-strapped local communities of critical tax revenues.”

Nancy Polkowski, General Manager of the TA Binghamton travel center said, “As [Congresswoman Tenney] notes in her well-written letter, by flouting federal law and commercializing the rest area on I-81, the State of New York is entering into direct competition with private businesses such as mine. In this environment, I have no hope of competing. Every time a highway traveler buys food at the rest area instead of my restaurant or convenience store, the City of Binghamton loses valuable tax revenue. These are dollars that go toward local schools, roads, and emergency services. This is wrong and it is illegal. I am very grateful to Congresswoman Tenney for recognizing the important role that off-highway businesses play in the local community, and for using her position in Congress to look out for those businesses and the communities they serve.”

The New York State Committee of Blind Vendors said that under the Randolph-Sheppard Act, permits are awarded to blind vendors to manage vending locations at rest areas along federal interstates, ensuring that blind entrepreneurs have gainful employment opportunities.

Commercialized rest areas, as is currently occurring in Binghamton, however, result in a significant loss of sales for blind entrepreneurs, devastating the blind community, which already battles a 70 percent unemployment rate among working-age blind adults.

SIGMA said its members have built their businesses by providing fuel and commercial services in a competitive environment along the highway interchanges and that this competitive environment is beneficial to the consumer and the local communities in which its members operate. “We thank Congresswoman Tenney for standing up for the fair competition upon which our members depend,” said SIGMA General Counsel, Tim Columbus.

The National Council on Chain Restaurants Executive Director Rob Green said restaurants in New York have invested millions of dollars to operate near the Interstate Highway System with the understanding that they would be allowed to serve the needs of the traveling public in a fair and competitive marketplace. By operating commercial rest areas from an advantageous location on the Interstate right-of-way, the state of New York is promoting a monopoly on food sales that ultimately will force consumers to pay higher prices while jeopardizing those restaurants that provide jobs and local tax revenues, he said.

Since last year, NATSO has been meeting with DOT to ensure that the New York State Department of Transportation is in full compliance with the federal law prohibiting commercial services at rest areas. NATSO will continue to update its members on this issue.

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