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November 1, 2017 3:45 PM, EDT
Truck Stop Gambling Heading to Pennsylvania
Christopher Irwin/Flickr

To most truck drivers, familiar with every nook and cranny of the country from their constant travels, seeing a slot machine-style video gambling terminal at a truck stop is nothing new.

Barb McDonald, a longtime trucker from Hereford Township, has seen them in Nevada, where some truck stops have been turned into mini-casinos with 80 slots.

“I think it’s great,” McDonald said Oct. 31 while filling up her rig at the Trexler Plaza Truck Stop in Upper Macungie Township. “That way the drivers — they can sit, they can gamble when they have their breaks.”

What would be new to McDonald, however, is seeing gambling terminals at certain truck stops in her home state of Pennsylvania, something that will soon become a reality after Gov. Tom Wolf on Oct. 30 signed into law a major gambling expansion bill meant to rake in an additional $200 million or more annually from license fees and taxes.

Perhaps the most eye-popping part of the legislation is the establishment of satellite casinos across the state, but also tucked into the hastily passed bill is a measure that allows qualifying truck stops to house up to five video gambling terminals, or VGTs.

While the appearance of five slot machine-style games in a truck stop’s drivers’ lounge doesn’t quite resemble the Las Vegas Strip, one industry analyst said the measure may just be the start of a larger retail gambling expansion within Pennsylvania. Truck stop owners, meanwhile, are just trying to digest the legislation and evaluate what it means for them and whether they qualify.

To qualify, according to the legislation, truck stops must: be equipped with diesel islands; have sold an average of 50,000 gallons of diesel each month for the last year; have at least 20 parking spaces for trucks; have a convenience store; and be on an at least 3-acre parcel of land not owned by the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The truck stop must also be licensed as a lottery sales agent.

By those conditions, Trexler Plaza Truck Stop, at 5829 Tilghman St., would qualify, according to general manager Raj Singh. The 24-hour establishment sits on 10 acres and sells about 250,000 gallons of diesel a month, he said.

Before adding VGTs to its drivers’ lounge, Singh said the truck stop wants more information. According to the legislation, a truck stop would have to apply for an establishment license and would undergo a review before being issued a license — good for five years — that would authorize them to permit a terminal operator licensee to place and operate VGTs at the facility.

“It’s something we would consider down the road possibly, but we need a lot more information about what’s going on,” Singh said.

Seven other states already offer retail gambling, which includes VGTs at truck stops, according to Joseph Weinert, senior vice president of Spectrum Gaming Group, a nonpartisan consulting firm in Linwood, N.J. Those states are Illinois, Louisiana, Montana, Oregon, West Virginia, Nevada and South Dakota, he said.

Illinois, which had expanded to 5,726 locations with a total of 24,840 VGTs by the end of 2016, opened a lot of eyes, he said.

While the increased competition from machines in truck stops, bars and restaurants contributed to a 1.7% decline in gambling revenues for Illinois’ casinos last year, Weinert pointed out that the state’s total gambling revenue increased. Penn National Gaming Inc. was one company that saw an opportunity, buying one of the largest VGT route operators in Illinois two years ago, an acquisition that gave the Berks County firm more than 1,100 terminals across 270 bars and other establishments across the state.

So, Weinert believes, it’s only a matter of time until Pennsylvania makes retail gambling a big business, too, meaning the operation of VGTs could expand to establishments with liquor licenses. After all, lawmakers were considering something similar earlier this year, and Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem responded with a million-dollar campaign to fight the proposal.

“I’d be shocked if Pennsylvania limits this to truck stops for too long,” he said. “This is a gateway move.”

That would be good news for McDonald, who fills up regularly at the Trexler Plaza Truck Stop and has gambled everywhere from the Sands Bethlehem to Atlantic City to Las Vegas.

“If I’m here and have to take a ½-hour break, it gives me some time to play,” she said.

Others, such as Wellsboro, Tioga County, trucker Frank Grinnell, don’t plan on funneling more money to the state through VGTs at truck stops.

“I’m not a gaming kind of guy,” Grinnell said at the Trexler Plaza Truck Stop on Oct. 31.

He won’t even let his wife buy him an Xbox, he says.