It All Depends On Whose Ox Is Getting Gored

Cash-strapped states like Arizona are trying to change the Federal law enabling them to privatize interstate rest stops so they can sell off leases and set up commercial operations. Except here in Tennessee, where our Gov. Bill Haslam, whose family owns Pilot Oil, the nation’s largest operator of travel centers, is against the idea. Surprise!

Well, technically he said he’s staying out of it since he’s governor, but his brother Jimmy, CEO of Pilot, is openly lobbying against the idea. And everyone says it’s not gonna happen in Tennessee.

Gov. Haslam says:

I think his point was, no matter what the business is, if you made an existing investment counting on a certain set of circumstances, i.e. that the state wouldn’t sell its own right of way for other people to use, it’s not really fair to go back and change the law to give one person a preferred position there.

I find this fascinating. I’m sure there are plenty of situations one can think of where a private group made an existing investment counting on a certain set of circumstances, and then the rules were unfairly changed. Let’s see … Planned Parenthood operating women’s health clinics using Title X funds comes to mind … I’m sure folks can think of some others.

I have to say, the Brothers Haslam surprise me. I would think they’d be all over this rest stop privatization scheme, eager to bid on the contract themselves. I admit I am not that familiar with this issue, so perhaps there’s something else going on here that I don’t know about. I can understand why the Haslam family would want less competition, and I guess they’ve positioned their locations on the assumption that state-operated rest stops are not competition.

Usually, though, Republicans are all about privatization. From our prisons to our schools, everything is supposed to be shinier, sparklier, cheaper, and better when sprinkled with the fairy dust of free enterprise.

Except, of course, where you pee and stretch your legs while taking the great American road trip.

Hmmm. Sounds a little self-serving to me. Furthermore, Tom Humphrey noted that other states which have received federal approval to privatize their rest stops are making some decent money:

In contrast to Tennessee, where the combined cost of operations is about $10 million per year, other states are making money off their rest stops. In Delaware, where full commercialization is allowed under federal law, a contract guarantees the state at least $1.6 million per year and perhaps more, depending on the contractor’s profits, according to a Stateline article. The contractor spent $35 million building a 42,000-square foot welcome center last year, the article says.

In Virginia, where full commercialization with restaurants and gas stations is not permitted, Gov. Bob McDonnell’s administration recently awarded a contract for operating vending kiosks and sale of advertising rights at 42 rest areas and welcome centers that is projected to net about $2 million per year, according to the AP.

Now, $2 million a year may not sound like a lot but remembering the hissy fits Republicans threw over TDOT’s roadside wildflower program which honored our veterans and cost around $800,000, well … it’s significant. Boy, I miss seeing those red poppies and purple lupines every spring. Ah well.

For the record, I’m not in favor of privatizing rest stops, either. I love the uncommercialized nature of our rest stops. But that’s just my Luddite, hippie nature. So Haslam and I agree on this one, for completely different reasons. Haslam wants to protect the family fortune under the guise of “fairness” … I’m just sick of being advertised to all the time. But honestly I really wonder what’s in the best interest of Tennessee? Would it be so awful if a private company operated our rest stops, perhaps along the Virginia model?

10 Comments

Filed under Bill Haslam, conservatives, privatization, Tennessee politics

10 responses to “It All Depends On Whose Ox Is Getting Gored

  1. Min

    Well, there go my free State of Tennessee maps.

  2. Not necessarily. The state dept. of tourism can still give out free maps.

  3. Min

    But where will I be able to pick them up, if not at a convenient, state-run rest area?

    • I’m sure you could still pick them up at that same rest area or welcome center. The state would just be leasing to a concessionaire, not outright selling the property off.

      But I’m really so over the whole privatization thing, I’m not advocating it. I’m just playing devil’s advocate here.

      Anyway, no fear. As long as Mr. Pilot Oil is governor no one will be doing privatizing interstate rest stops anyway.

      • ThresherK

        But I’m really so over the whole privatization thing, I’m not advocating it.

        Too many bad experiences says to me that pretty much everything which would benefit from privatizing got it by maybe a dozen years ago. Now it’s such a bad word that I don’t trust anyone who remains dedicated to it to not write a “give away the store” contract.

      • Yup, that’s pretty much my take on it.

  4. Is Haslams “blind trust” enjoying a state contract to sell fuel at those rest stops?

    I can’t find the relevant documents on the web, but I think the NY Thruway Authority leases property/vending services to various foodservice/fuel/repair companies to operate their businesses. In return those businesses provide janitorial services for such things as restrooms. The Authority maintains stores and kiosks where tschotkes, maps and promotional literature are available.

    • Haslam’s blind trust is really just nearsighted — he left Pilot Oil out of it. The logic was that, he said,

      …Tennesseans are “very familiar” with his relationship with Pilot …

      Which soooo misses the point! He totally doesn’t get the point of a blind trust. It’s to protect THE GOVERNOR from conflict of interest, not the public! So he doesn’t, even unintentionally, take actions that benefit his personal financial holdings. DUH.

      Naturally our local media just let that one slide.

      According to what I read, we have some non-profit group supplying our rest stops and welcome centers with vending machines. The state tourism office provides maps and brochures and there’s some independent company that stocks them with brochures about area attractions. When I worked at a national recreation area we had to work with them to make sure our brochures and maps made it into the rest stops. That’s a huge racket, by the way. You pay to have your stuff put out and they assume you’ll never check (but oh … I checked!). I think it’s like stocking super market shelves, they want some kind of “incentive” to give the best positioning.

      No, all of our rest stops are completely non-commercial. No gas sales, no nothing. I’m just surprised that Pilot wouldn’t want to sell gas at them. But I guess they don’t want anyone else to, either.

      Some states have more commercial rest stops than others. I was surprised on the Icefields Parkway in Canada, which is part of their national park system, to see a highly commercialized rest stop with motel, gas station, restaurants, etc. Looked like a little Disneyland.

  5. The last time I was in Can-O-Duh, back in 1986, I drove something like 200 miles on the only available road (the TransCanada, King’s Hwy, whatever it’s called) and the only place to buy gas was in the middle of a First Peoples Reserve, at abouty 25% above the going rate.

    Commercialism, per se, doesn’t bother me. Exploitative commercialism, cronyism, nepotism, monopoly marketing for subsistence/commodity items bothers the shit out of me.

  6. Privatization means a reduction of staff then the joys of wringing the remaining personnel dry while simultaneously cutting wages and benefits. Therein lies the efficiencies promised by the private sector. Just another assault on workers and their families.