NATSO says commercial rest stops lead to fewer truck parking spaces

The New Stanton Service Plaza, a commercialized rest stop, on the PA Turnpike. 

NATSO continues pushing back against the White House infrastructure plan

FreightWaves has covered the story of the Trump administration’s infrastructure plan since it was tangled up in legislative limbo, then when the six page outline was leaked to the press, and again when President Trump raised the stakes to $1.5T in his first State of the Union address.

We’ve also covered some industry criticism of specific planks in the plan, like when the National Association of Truck Stop Owners (NATSO) came out against state- or privately-funded infrastructure development partnerships. At that time NATSO President and CEO Lisa Mullings said, “We urge the Administration to refrain from widespread tolling of America’s infrastructure and the commercialization of interstate rest areas.”

Now NATSO is back at it again, pushing back against the White House’s proposal to allow states greater flexibility in commercializing interstate rest stops. This time, the travel stop lobbying group has taken a slightly different angle of attack: it has released an updated version of its research studying the negative correlation between commercialized rest stops and truck parking spaces. NATSO claims that ‘commercialized’ interstates—that is, interstates with amenities and stores on the interstate right-of-way, not just off the exits—have fewer truck parking spaces per mile than non-commercialized interstates. NATSO is looking out for the driver, you see.

“This analysis confirms NATSO’s 2010 findings that there is a significant negative correlation between rest area commercialization and truck parking per roadway mile. This updated report finds that there are 69 percent more truck parking spaces per mile on interstate highways without commercialized rest areas than on those interstates with commercial rest areas,” NATSO wrote in the report’s Executive Summary.

NATSO hypothesizes that commercial rest areas hurt truck stops and drive them out of business, thus depriving truck drivers of places to park. The report encompasses 13 states: Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, and found that non-commercialized interstate segments have 6.57 truck parking spaces, while commercialized interstate segments only have 3.88 truck parking spaces per mile. 

The report’s methodology is somewhat simplistic—it compares currently commercialized interstate segments to non-commercialized segments in terms of the number of truck parking spaces each one has per mile, on average. The clear implication is that if states began commercializing rest stops—say, in order to raise money for their portion of infrastructure funding—truck stops would start disappearing and so would their parking spaces. 

Some of the commercialized highway segments that NATSO studied already existed prior to the construction of the interstate system, and their facilities were ‘grandfathered’ in by Congress as private on-right-of-way-facilities. Those include I-95 through northern Maryland, I-95 in New Jersey (the New Jersey Turnpike), and I-76 in Pennsylvania (the Pennsylvania Turnpike).

It would have been informative to see NATSO perform a more rigorous historical study of the effects of commercializing an interstate segment that already possessed a well-established truck stop business. It’s possible, for instance, that on newly built toll roads with commercialized right-of-way rest stops and a limited number of exits, that the truck stop business never really develops and takes off. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the introduction of commercialized right-of-way rest stops onto a highway already dotted with truck stops where carriers have contracted to purchase fuel would significantly hurt those stores. NATSO’s study doesn’t attempt to answer those sorts of questions but is content with only establishing a basic correlation.

Another line of research NATSO might have explored, but didn’t, would ask where commercialized rest stops might be located to do the most good for the public and the least harm to existing businesses. Are there stretches of interstate, for instance, that are underserved by the truck stop and travel center industry, but could still represent a revenue-generating opportunity for states? The NATSO study doesn’t ask those kinds of questions, preferring a black-and-white solution to the problem of funding an extensive national infrastructure rebuild. Their answer? A 100% federally funded plan, which, needless to say, is unworkable politically or fiscally. 

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John Paul Hampstead, Associate Editor

John Paul writes about current events and economics, especially politics, finance, and commodities, and holds a Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Michigan. In previous lives John Paul studied Shakespeare in London and Buddhism in India, but now he focuses on transportation and logistics in the heart of Freight Alley--Chattanooga. He spends his free time with his wife and daughter herding cats, collecting books, and walking alongside the Tennessee River.