NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A national coalition of truck stop and travel plaza operators, restaurants, trucking firms and others are urging key federal lawmakers to oppose Trump administration efforts to commercialize interstate rest areas as Congress develops an infrastructure bill.
Among groups in the coalition is the National Association of Truck Stop Operators, whose board members include Jimmy Haslam, CEO of Knoxville-based Pilot Flying J, the nation's largest chain of travel centers.
Both Jimmy Haslam and his brother, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, a former Pilot president, hold major financial stakes in the family-owned company.
As governor, Haslam in the past has recused himself on issues involving Pilot Flying J. The governor's spokeswoman, Jennifer Donnals, said in an e-mail June 13 that still remains the case.
"The governor has no part of the operations of Pilot and does not speak for the company," she added.
What has the various industry groups alarmed is a provision in Republican President Donald Trump's budget outline which proposes to "liberalize tolling policy and allow private investment in rest areas."
Trump has advocated for public-private partnerships in major infrastructure projects, including toll roads.
The Trump administration budget outline says the administration also supports allowing the private sector "to construct, operate and maintain interstate rest areas, which are often overburden [sic] and inadequately maintained."
A NATSO news release announcing the coalition's opposition warns the proposal to allow sales of food, fuel and other commercial services at interstate rest areas "would drain local businesses of customers, communities of much-needed jobs and city governments of critical tax revenue by putting established businesses in direct competition with state governments."
NATSO says it also would provide "an unfair competitive advantage by granting the state direct access to highway motorists."
In a statement, NATSO President and CEO Lisa Mullings said Congress "effectively privatized highway services in 1960 when federal lawmakers prohibited states from offering commercial services at rest areas along the Interstate Highway System specifically so that private sector entities would grow and provide services to the traveling public."
The governor's brother, Jimmy Haslam, had weighed in previously about the issue of privatizing interstate rest areas.
In 2011, Jimmy Haslam once fired off letters to both the governor and other elected officials urging them to reject privatizing interstate rest stops currently owned by the Tennessee Department of Transportation and operated at taxpayer expense, the Knoxville News Sentinel reported at the time.
"While at first glance this may seem like an easy way for state [departments of transportation] to generate revenue, the fact is it will devastate private businesses like mine that for the last 50 years have operated under the current law and established locations at the highway exits," Jimmy Haslam wrote in the letter.
The Associated Press reported at the time that the governor had no problem with his brother writing the letter.
"He's the CEO of a major Tennessee business that has their interests to defend," Haslam said. "And that's nothing new: Pilot's been talking about that, as has everybody else that has an interstate business from McDonald's to everybody else for years."