Comments to the Federal Highway Administration Regarding Electric Vehicle Charging Stations at Interstate Rest Stops and their Effect on Randolph-Sheppard Vendors (January 28, 2022)

January 28, 2022

The Honorable Stephanie Pollack
Deputy Administrator
Federal Highway Administration
United States Department of Transportation
1200 New Jersey Avenue SE
Washington, DC 20590-0001

RE: Docket No. FHWA-2021-0022

Dear Deputy Administrator Pollack:

I am writing on behalf of the National Federation of the Blind, the transformative membership and advocacy organization of blind Americans, and our blind entrepreneurs’ division, the National Association of Blind Merchants (NABM). I specifically write regarding the Development of Guidance for Electric Vehicle Charging Infrastructure Deployment Request for Information. NABM’s membership consists of blind entrepreneurs who have a priority to own and operate vending businesses that serve government properties pursuant to the Randolph-Sheppard Act. Section 111(c) of the Surface Transportation Act extends this priority to vending located at interstate rest areas. Today, approximately one-third of the businesses owned by blind entrepreneurs and operated under the Randolph-Sheppard program are located at interstate rest areas.

We understand that the Department of Transportation (DOT) is contemplating allowing the placement of electric vehicle (EV) charging stations at the interstate rest areas as part of a national network of charging stations. It has always been our understanding that Section 111(a) would prevent the placement of charging stations at interstate rest areas, and we have relied on that prohibition to protect against full-scale commercialization. Our organization has been and continues to be concerned about the prospects of commercializing interstate rest areas due to the potential impact it could have on businesses owned by blind people. Obviously, if large retail travel plazas are constructed at rest areas, blind entrepreneurs may be pushed out. Therefore, there is some apprehension about the placement of EV charging stations at the rest areas if doing so serves as an impetus for larger scale commercialization.

Since DOT is considering allowing EV charging stations at rest areas, the only possible mechanism that would allow the placement is pursuant to the priority afforded to blind entrepreneurs in Section 111(c). Although NABM would welcome the opportunity for its members, especially those who have been devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic, to enhance their earnings, further research is needed to determine the degree to which profit can be generated. Most EV charging models today are not based upon profit from the sale of electricity but from increased patronage of the owner’s core business. Whether or not that model is applicable to rest area vending machines is uncertain. Any sales boost would be minimal. The only way blind entrepreneurs can benefit is if there is profit to be made from the sale of electricity.  

Notwithstanding Section 111(a), we have several concerns and questions that we would like for DOT to consider as it determines whether charging stations may be installed at the rest areas: 

  1. Many rest areas are located in parts of the country where extreme heat and cold are normal. Will DOT include in any guidance the authority to utilize funds to construct a climate-controlled shelter for vending machines and perhaps internet connections? If customers do not have a comfortable place to wait for their cars to charge, the success of the initiative could be jeopardized.
  2. The National Federation of the Blind is also concerned about the impact on current blind entrepreneurs if a rest area must be closed for installation of the charging stations. These blind entrepreneurs rely on sales from vending machines, and those sales would be interrupted if the rest area is closed. Will DOT authorize the payment of lost income to blind entrepreneurs incurred as the result of rest area closings?
  3. Currently, blind entrepreneurs operate the vending machines at a majority of the rest areas. However, state licensing agencies utilize third parties to operate machines at a number of the rest areas. Section 111(c) states that such machines must be operated by the State, and there is no stated authority under that section or the Randolph-Sheppard Act for third parties. However, there is no prohibition to blind entrepreneurs utilizing third parties if doing so is a good business decision. If EV charging stations are simply going to be used as a funding source for state licensing agencies for the blind, our organization will not support such a strategy. DOT has the authority and responsibility to interpret Section 111. Any guidance provided by DOT must make it clear that the intent of the law is to create employment and income for blind people and not state licensing agencies.
  4. Likewise, if profit can be generated from the sale of electricity, state DOTs will be tempted by the additional revenue. Although recouping additional costs associated with charging stations may be appropriate, in our opinion, the majority of profit must accrue to the blind person in order to comply with the spirit of the law. Although we are still educating ourselves about the profitability of these charging stations, it is abundantly clear that margins are very thin. If the state DOT and the state licensing agency are both trying to profit, what is left for the blind entrepreneur?
  5. Finally, what protection do blind entrepreneurs have from governors directing their state licensing agencies to waive their priority and allow the state DOT to collect all of the profits? State licensing agencies are in the executive branches of state governments and take their direction from their governor.

In conclusion, the National Federation of the Blind supports efforts that benefit blind business owners. However, we recognize that with opportunities come challenges. We want to ensure that everyone understands the challenges, and we want to arrive at a solution that does not harm, and indeed benefits, blind entrepreneurs. Our concern is that Section 111(c) will be used as a loophole to place EV charging stations at the rest areas, but that blind people will actually derive little - if any - benefit. If DOT implements this policy, it must prevent the priority, originally introduced in 1982 by former Congresswoman Barbara Kennelly for the sole purpose of creating opportunities for the blind, from being used for the gain of others.

Thank you for the opportunity to comment. We expect and look forward to further dialogue with DOT on this critically important matter.

Mark Riccobono, President
National Federation of the Blind