March 11, 2019 5:45 PM, EDT

Gambling Expands at Pa. Truck Stops, but Opponents Continue Fight

Truck StopsRutter's via YouTube

Four Pennsylvania truck stops have received conditional approval to operate video gaming terminals, the latest step in a long-running, controversial effort in the state to introduce the gambling devices in truck stops and convenience stores.

The approvals — given to Love’s Travel Stops & Country Stores locations on March 6 by the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board — could become final this year.

Expansion of gambling sites in the state is an issue that has a significant amount of interest from businesses, but which also faces resistance from some political leaders and communities

In 2017, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf signed into law a bill that significantly expanded gambling in the state. Originally, however, traditional truck stops and large convenience stores were not included.

Truck Stops

Wolf speaks at a press conference. (Gov. Tom Wolf/Flickr)

People involved in the debate two years ago told Transport Topics that incorporating truck stops was a compromise, as most of the discussion had centered on gambling at taverns. At the eleventh hour, lawmakers removed taverns from the bill and added truck stops.

On the fly, they wrote a definition of a truck stop; to qualify, a facility must have sold 50,000 gallons of diesel or biodiesel each month for 12 consecutive months, or be projected to do so. It also must have at least 20 parking spots for commercial vehicles and have a convenience store on site.

A LOOK BACK: Pennsylvania legalizes gambling at truck stops

Left out was a key component of what most truck stops have: shower facilities.“Showers were not discussed,” Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association President Kevin Stewart told TT.

That omission expanded the scope of where gambling can take place and what type of facility can have the lucrative terminals. Beyond traditional truck stops that have showers, big convenience stores that sell large amounts of diesel and food and have adequate commercial parking — but no showers — may also qualify.

The Pennsylvania trade organization that represents convenience stores wants its members to have the opportunity to operate the terminals.

Truck Stops

“We want to make sure that our members are not excluded from the ability to participate in the program with terminals. That’s our main concern,” said Alex Baloga, CEO of the Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association. “We didn’t ask for specifics about adding showers or not adding showers, and our organization represents convenience stores.” Baloga is downplaying concerns by some that hundreds of convenience stores — which under the law could classify as truck stops — could have gambling terminals. “This is a very specific set of requirements that you would qualify as a truck stop, and it’s not going to be on every corner in every place in the commonwealth. That’s not the way it is set up,” he said. In fact, he noted that the vast majority of convenience stores in his association would not qualify.

Under the law, video gambling terminals must be in separate rooms outfitted with cameras to monitor the players. Also, people younger than 21 are not allowed.

The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board said 65 of the estimated 300 eligible truck stops in the state have applied for gambling licenses, and 43 have received conditional approval.

With 72 locations, locally owned-and-operated Rutter’s is one of the largest convenience store chains in the state. On Feb. 6, the company received conditional approval to operate video gaming terminals at 20 locations. In January, it signed an agreement with video gaming terminal company Marquee by Penn National Gaming to be its terminal operator and manage the machines.

However, officials in Strasburg, a borough in Lancaster County, are fighting the effort to expand gambling. In late January, the borough’s zoning board voted 5-0 against Rutter’s request to allow five video terminals at its truck stop there. The company can appeal.

“We’re not in favor of it; it won’t bring anything positive to the borough of Strasburg,” Mayor Bruce Ryder told TT. “We really don’t want video gaming terminals at our truck stops.” With 12 casinos in operation, and one other under construction, gambling in Pennsylvania is big business. Meanwhile, other state and local officials are seeking to make changes to allow local communities to opt out of allowing gambling.

State Sen. Scott Martin (R-Lancaster) is pushing a bill that would give local governments a 90-day window to disallow gambling, once an application is filed.

“The applications now are popping up everywhere, and convenience stores, these rest stops are making requests to change things on their property to accommodate that,” Martin told Transport Topics. “Our local governments, our citizens have been upset that all of these applications for video gaming terminals are popping up.”

Arguably, they’re popping up because there’s money on the table; in 2017, the state’s total statewide commercial casino gaming revenue reached $3.2 billion, a slight increase that came despite a small decline in gaming machine revenue, according to the American Gaming Association.

Natso logo

The state also generated $300 million in additional license and registration fees from the 2017 law, much of it from truck stops.

This is all catching the eye of local casinos, which don’t necessarily want the competition.

“They do not want a foot in the door with these machines, because they know it will proliferate into other places,” Doug Harbach, Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board director of communications, told TT.

The trade association that represents truck stops is monitoring the debate.

“A number of states have explored legalized gaming in one form or another as a way to add much-needed revenues to state and local coffers,” said Tiffany Wlazlowski-Neuman, spokeswoman for Natso — formerly the National Association of Truck Stop Operators. “Some lawmakers who have gone down this path have viewed travel centers as a location where such gaming activity can take place. It has been implemented successfully in multiple jurisdictions throughout the country, and Natso is happy to be a part of the conversation as state and local governments determine what is best for them and their constituents.”