August 10, 2020

Policy in the Pandemic: Fast Food to ... Fast Charging??

Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions

By Kate Konschnik

2018 marked a banner year for personal electric vehicles (PEVs) in the United States, with a record 361,000 electric cars sold. A number of states have set ambitious zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) goals; others including North Carolina have set plug-in electric vehicle (PEV) goals. But removing range anxiety—the concern that drivers will be limited in their mobility by the number or prevalence of charging infrastructure—remains key to PEV uptake.

One way to address this would be to site charging infrastructure at highway rest stops. A major obstacle stands in the way. Since 1958, a federal law has prohibited “automotive service stations or other commercial establishments for serving motor vehicle users to be constructed or located on the rights-of-way of the Interstate System.” The gas stations and restaurants that dot the interstate in more populous areas all pre-date that law; the vending machines, stacks of tourism brochures, and bathrooms at sparser stops are all that states can construct at these sites. The original purpose of the law was to protect main streets across America from retail competition along the new federal highways; decades later, a powerful alliance of truck stops (located just off the highway), the vending machine industry, and the National Federation for the Blind keep this structure in place. (Retail competition remains the concern; in addition, blind vendors are given priority in competitive bidding for highway vending machine supply under the Randolph-Sheppard Act.) The penalty for a non-compliant state is the loss of federal highway funds.

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) sought public input in 2016 on the question of how to interpret the law in the modern era. Specifically, the FHWA sought comment on what might fall into the vending machine exception “considering advances in technology,” and what other commercial activities might be consistent with these exceptions. This might have included EV charging infrastructure, though that infrastructure was not specifically named. In any event, the administration changed before action could be taken on the comments submitted.

Fast forward to 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic. As observed by the FHWA, “States have been forced to close restaurants and other available food service accommodations, including in Interstate Highway rest areas.” In response, the FHWA issued a Notice of Enforcement Discretion on April 3, stating that “if a State determines that permitting food trucks to operate and sell food in any designated federally funded Interstate Highway rest areas is necessary to support interstate commercial truck drivers, FHWA will refrain from taking any remedial action under the Federal-aid highway program against that State.”

From Arkansas to West Virginia, states across the alphabet and around the country began permitting food trucks for rest areas. Rig drivers have reported eating funnel cake and tacos from these establishments since they began dotting the interstate landscape. But these food trucks may be doing something else—opening travelers’ eyes to the possibilities of expanded commercial options at rest areas. One of these could be EV charging—and Section 1211 of the House-passed version of the Highway Reauthorization Bill would authorize installation of this infrastructure. (It remains unclear how highway reauthorization will proceed over the next two months.)

The measure to authorize rest stop EV charging faces stiff opposition. The National Association of Truck Stop Operators had been fighting the food trucks; now they are pushing for removal of the EV amendment. Moreover, the bill still needs to get through the Senate. However, the softening of the federal government to new commercial activity in America’s rest areas during the pandemic may suggest a path forward for highway EV charging.

About the Author
Kate Konschnik is director of the Climate and Energy Program at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and a senior lecturing fellow at Duke Law School.

The Big Questions

To continue the conversation on this week's topic, here are a few questions for further consideration and study:

  1. What economic effects, positive or negative, have food trucks in rest stops had on the surrounding communities? What lessons from those effects could be applied to siting EV charging infrastructure at rest stops?
  2. Could the lack of EV charging infrastructure at interstate rest stops reinforce “range anxiety” among would-be EV owners? Or would consistent signage indicating EV charging is available just off the interstate suffice to fill this market need?
  3. Is the legislative change, like that proposed in the surface transportation reauthorization bill passed by the House this summer, necessary to bring EV charging to interstate rest stops? Or was the FHWA on to something in 2016, when it sought public comment on whether existing exceptions in the law—including permission to have vending machines at interstate rest stops—could be used to offer electric charging for vehicles?
  4. Are there other unintended barriers to personal EV uptake embedded in federal laws?


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