Did NY Break Federal Law With its New LIE Rest Stop?

rest stop

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) suspects New York State may have broken federal law when it recently opened a store at the Long Island Expressway rest stop in Dix Hills, officials said.

State Department of Transportation (DOT) officials maintain that the new rest area—and several others like it that recently opened statewide—is a legally permissible welcome center and market designed to promote tourism in addition to selling locally made products.

But the FHA suspects otherwise, and it has scheduled a meeting with state DOT leaders next month to discuss it and a related issue regarding state tourism signs that federal officials say are also not in compliance. If the two sides can’t come to an agreement, portions of $1.7 billion in federal highway funding to the state could be withheld.

In a related matter, upstate Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi (D-Utica) has issued a public complaint that the new “I Love NY” highway signs were printed out of state. “It’s simply a bad sign when New York picks Arkansas for a project promoting our state,” Brindisi said in a press release.

As for the federal matter, that issue is still under investigation.

“FHWA is evaluating whether the rest area, which was not constructed with federal funds, conforms with applicable federal requirements,” Neil Gaffney, a spokesman for the agency, said in a statement. “If the facility violates federal law, we intend to work with NYSDOT to bring it into compliance both with the rest area and with the signage. We have reached out to the state DOT and are confident we will be able to work with NYSDOT to resolve this matter in the coming weeks.”

Besides the market, the $20-million, 15,200-square-foot rest area—located on the eastbound side of the LIE near exit 51—also features a “Long Island Walk of Fame,” a miniature lighthouse, a statue of a breaching whale, light-up maps of LI, police facilities and a DMV kiosk.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in June that he was inspired to rebuild the rest area after he was stranded there for several hours before he ran for governor—an experience he called a “nightmare from hell.” The rest stop opened Oct. 20, and the federal review followed earlier this month, although Gaffney noted that the FHWA has been warning the state about the legality of its tourism road signs since 2011.

State DOT Commissioner Matthew Driscoll defended the signs and rest stops in a letter to the FHWA earlier this month, The Poughkeepsie Journal reported. At issue is whether the rest stop is in compliance with a ban on most over-the-counter food sales at rest areas under a federal law designed to encourage drivers to exit interstates and patronize local businesses, the paper reported.

“The roadside welcome centers complement and do not compete with full scale service vendors or local businesses,” Driscoll wrote in a letter to the FHWA.

Cuomo echoed the sentiment Tuesday in a news release touting the Taste of New York program.

“By promoting these great New York products, we are helping to support local farms and businesses, create jobs and increase economic growth across New York,” he said.

As for the hundreds of road signs promoting the “I Love NY,” “Taste of New York” and related tourism promotion initiatives, FHWA officials said they are distracting to drivers, violating federal law. The agency said that if the signs are not brought into compliance, it could withhold funding for federal highway projects.

“Our hope is to explore all other options, short of penalizing the state,” Gaffney said. He noted that at the upcoming meeting, Driscoll and FHWA Administrator Greg Nadeau “will specifically discuss how these signs violate national standards and a plan to bring the state into compliance.”

Driscoll wrote that he “recognizes the disagreement with FHWA’s interpretation of permissible signage and rest area activities in support of promoting tourism” and looks forward to the meeting.