The debate over EV charging at interstate rest stops

NATSO said allowing electric chargers is the “wrong signal” from Congress, while advocates tout the need to modernize Eisenhower-era rules and provide parking.


Jim Stinson@JimStinson March 1, 2021

An Eisenhower-era regulation forbidding commercial activity at interstate rest stops has found itself in a new age, one where truckers want an end to rest stop shutdowns and environmentalists want easily accessible electric charging along the highways as the green movement accelerates.

The federal government has regulated interstate highway rest stops since 1956, and they cannot have fueling stations or restaurants, with some exceptions. But Congress introduced legislation in the form of H.R. 2 — The Moving Forward Act — that would permit electric vehicle charging at rest areas. It passed the House in 2020, and it could later be tucked into President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion plan for infrastructure and climate.

The issue is a thorny one. NATSO, formerly known as National Association of Truck Stop Operators, opposed Congress carving out an exception to the commercial-activity ban and allowing EV charging infrastructure.

Doing so “would not only discourage existing refueling stations throughout the country from investing in charging infrastructure, but it will signal to prospective EV drivers that they will not be able to access the same amenities and fueling experience to which they are accustomed,” NATSO Vice President of Government Affairs David Fialkov said in a statement. “This is the wrong signal for Congress to send.”

NATSO wants to make sure electric charging isn’t seen as a foot in the door for commercialization, or for state governments to begin competing with the private sector for charging fees. And while the coalition understands the trend toward EVs, it blasted the idea of placing chargers at interstate rest stops.

“If the objective is to install more EV charging stations, it is overly simplistic to think placing them at interstate rest areas is a good idea,” said Fialkov. “It’s like calls to ban gas-powered vehicles. It strikes me as a cop-out. The real challenge is to create a tax-and-incentive structure that makes the private sector want to invest in EV chargers and consumers to want to buy EVs.”

Are Eisenhower-era rules still relevant?

The interstate rest-stop regulations were written in the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, which created the interstate highway system. The law limited what rest stops could offer. Most of the nation’s interstate rest stops have washrooms, parking and vending machines that are contracted out to disabled business owners. The regulation was intended to keep business in the towns and cities that the interstates came near.

Some note the rest-stop model was created in the Eisenhower era, and doesn’t take into account the needs of truckers who need parking or an electric charge.

Norita Taylor, spokesperson for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, said the organization has long advocated for the commercialization of rest areas, and even more so today as states close some of the interstate rest stops for reasons related to budgets or the coronavirus.

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“Now more than ever, our members are relying on rest areas to safely rest when tried or required to by law,” Taylor said. “If commercialization will help states keep these locations open during difficult budgetary times, we’re all for it.”

One policy expert said the travel-stop rule is dated.

“[The regulation] has outlived its usefulness,” said Robert Poole, director of transportation policy at the Reason Foundation. “The needs are not being met.”

Poole said NATSO and its coalition allies see rest stops as a potential major threat to their businesses, and too great a threat.

“They have kind of a zero-sum mentality that anything added will put some people out of business,” said Poole.

Long treks to parking

Poole said the debate misses a concern outside of EVs, and that is parking. Allowing greater spaces on the interstate would help alleviate the truck-parking shortage, he said.

Parking is not likely to improve anytime soon. In the Federal Highway Administration’s 2019 Jason’s Law truck parking survey, 79% of 524 truck stop owners and operators indicated they do not plan to add more truck parking, according to slides shown during a National Truck Parking Coalition meeting in December.

The problem compounds as land near interstate exchanges becomes more expensive. The private sector then puts its parking, its hotels and its fuel stations farther from the interstate, said Andrew Warcaba, president of Warcaba & Associates. That leads to longer treks for drivers seeking fuel, hotels and parking, he said. And sometimes that leads to congestion.

“At some of these locations, you get off and you could spend 30 minutes in traffic,” said Warcaba.

Fialkov said adding commercialization to rest stops would limit parking more, because taking traffic away from truck stops “undercuts their sources of revenue and limits the return on investment from expanding parking capacity.”

Warcaba said if the states open up their rest stops to fuel and parking providers, many of NATSO’s members will likely bid on the sites. But for now, NATSO members will oppose loosening the regulations, he said.

Warcaba said states that are closing rest stops should see a change in the law as an opportunity for development, especially for parking. But he doesn’t see a likelihood the federal government will change the rule, even as some truckers struggle to find parking.

“No one truly understands the life of a trucker,” said Warcaba.

Recommended Reading:  TRANSPORT DIVE FHWA: 79% of truck stops don’t plan on adding parking


Auditor: Local governments could save combined $375M with average solar installations

By Perry Beeman -February 26, 2021

Iowa’s state auditor says solar panels could save Iowa’s cities, counties and school districts millions of dollars, based on reports about early installations. (Photo by Sirisak Boakaew/Getty Images)

If every Iowa county seat, school district and county government installed an average solar energy system, taxpayers would save $375 million over the life of the equipment, Auditor Rob Sand noted in a new report.

in the state’s first analysis of its kind, Sand asked local governments and school districts and the Iowa Solar Energy Trade Association for information on solar installations, and came up with a list of more than 100. 

The auditor’s office picked 27 projects randomly and submitted questions to project backers. Of those, 13 responded.

The state’s analysis found that the local governments and school districts saved an average of $26,475 a year on energy because of the solar panels. That would figure out to $716,437 each over the life of the installation, Sand added. 

In an interview, Sand said he got the idea for the review in part by talking to family members who own solar panels and have discussed their energy savings. One of Sand’s centerpiece programs on behalf of taxpayers is the Public Innovations & Efficiencies (PIE) program.

The idea is to show government bodies ways to save money through energy conservation, limiting printing of documents or reducing water use, for example. Solar energy seemed worth adding to the list, and the study was born, Sand said.

Sand’s own office saved $30,000 in a year by deciding not to automatically print all the audits and other reports staffers produce, he said.

The solar installations have some advantages.

Often, the auditor noted, school districts could use sales tax receipts for the work, taking pressure off strained general funds that rely on property taxes.

Sand noted the the city of Knoxville joined the local school district in a project. And Mason City found that not only did the city government save money, but it also reduced its carbon emissions, which are tied to climate change. 

Other installations include those in Lisbon, the Iowa Falls school district, and Black Hawk County, for example. 

Some local governments buy power from solar energy systems owned by others or lease equipment, reducing upfront costs. The city of Letts had no upfront payments, and officials expect the system to pay for itself in 15 years, Sand noted. 

Sigourney schools also got a system with no upfront payment, but is considering a purchase for about $300,000. The equipment would pay for itself in roughly six to seven years, the district reported.

Solar energy systems typically last 20 to 30 years, according to the report.

Sand’s projection of $375 million in savings assumed each of the 99 county governments, the 100 county seats (Lee County has two), and 330 school districts installed a system. 

In an interview, Kerri Johannsen, the Iowa Environmental Council’s energy program director, said solar energy has gained interest in Iowa as the price of solar panels dropped 90% in the  past decade. Depending on the system and which utility is involved, systems can pay for themselves in five to 15 years, she added, but the time varies by the circumstances.

Iowa’s solar energy future is brighter than many realize, Johannsen said.

“The growth definitely is accelerating. People haven’t thought of Iowa as a hot spot for solar, but Iowa is 16th in the country for solar potential” according to a study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, she added.