Federal law bars restaurants at rest stops

Travelers stop recently at the Little River Welcome Center. The Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism has said it might have to close or reduce operations at welcome centers because of state budget cuts. Other states, such as Delaware, report making

South Carolina could solve its welcome center and rest stop budget woes if it allowed companies like Shoney's, McDonald's or Burger King to set up shop at the roadside.

But it would mean getting the federal government to revoke a law that dates to the Eisenhower administration -- a law that still has many supporters.

A 1956 federal highway act -- that is increasingly coming under scrutiny by a number of states facing budgeting constraints -- prohibits selling food, fuel or any item not offered from a vending machine, at rest areas along any federal right-of-way interstate built after 1960. The law means all of the major federal highway rest-points in South Carolina are off limits to restaurant chains.

Meanwhile, states in the Northeast and Midwest, where the state-run turnpike or federal highway systems are much older, already permit commercial operations at their rest stops, getting a financial cut from businesses selling burgers, shakes, gas and other roadside items.

Some say the law, meant mainly to protect 1950s America from becoming rural roadkill as the interstate system grew, is outdated.

"We've mentioned it to our (congressional) delegation but it's that historic struggle between the public and private sector regarding commercial competition," said Michael Covington, director of administration at the S.C. Transportation Department, which operates the state's many rest stops.

The Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, which co-runs the state's welcome centers, has no formal position on revoking the law, but the agency recently expressed concerns that it might have to close or reduce operations at its welcome centers because of state budget cuts.

Rest areas in Delaware, Connecticut and Pennsylvania often include diners, gas stations and quick marts. Other states, such as those that the Southern half of Interstate 95 passes through, may offer nothing more than bathrooms and vending machines.

While some states are shuttering their rest stops because of budget woes, the nonprofit online news site Stateline.org reports that Delaware is making money from operations in the state. Through a vendor contract on a 42,000-square foot welcome center on I-95, Delaware gets a percentage of revenues from "sales of gas, food and other goods -- at least $1.6 million per year for 35 years," the site reported.

Some say South Carolina shouldn't look for any change soon. Tom Sponseller, president and CEO of the S.C. Hospitality Association, said the group's board will probably begin discussing the issue in the next few weeks. But at first glance he said changing the federal law probably would be something the association's board would oppose.

Opening rest stops or welcome centers to chains could create a monopoly for one business, he said, to the detriment of other businesses further off the exits. He also said that while state budgets might prosper in allowing businesses on the interstates for a cost, it likely would be at the expense of consumers who assuredly would be charged higher prices than another location, farther off an exit ramp.

Another factor in South Carolina's equation is that the vending contracts for beverage and candy machines at its many rest stops along the interstates are set up as a source of income for the handicapped, which in South Carolina is designated to help the sight-impaired or blind.

For blind South Carolinians, these contracts are vital, advocates say. The S.C. Commission for the Blind's Business Enterprise Program oversees 29 vending locations along South Carolina's interstates which employ 73 blind and sighted individuals.

The average yearly income of a blind-licensed vendor along the interstate is about $40,178, the commission said.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551 or skropf@postandcourier.com.