Over-the-counter sales at the state’s Welcome Center on the Long Island Expressway in Dix Hills will be switched to self-checkout kiosks next month to avoid threatened cuts in federal funding, according to officials.
The change comes after federal highway officials informed the state Department of Transportation that the Taste NY store, which opened in October and sells New York-produced foods and beverages to promote agricultural tourism, has been operating in violation of a 1956 federal law that bans over-the-counter sales at rest areas on interstate highways.
A Jan. 19 letter from Federal Highway Administration division administrator Peter Osborn — among three on the matter obtained by Newsday between him and DOT Commissioner Matthew Driscoll — also referred to the same violation by another Taste NY store inside an upstate Broome County rest stop.
“To avoid potential sanctions,” Osborn warned in the letter, “NYSDOT should cease over-the-counter sales of products at the Long Island Expressway and the Broome County Rest Areas within 60 days of the date of receipt of this letter.”
If New York DOT officials don’t comply, the letter continued, the state will be “subject to applicable sanctions, including the withholding of federal aid funds and/or project approvals” and the removal of the vending machines in Dix Hills and Broome County.
New York State gets about $1 billion in federal funds annually for bridge and highway projects.
The only facilities allowed to have over-the-counter sales on New York interstates are grandfathered-in restaurants and travel stores on the New York State Thruway, DOT officials have said.
In a Feb. 1 letter, Driscoll thanked Osborn and his staff “for working with New York State on the implementation of Governor Cuomo’s Taste NY tourism initiative.”
He said the DOT “understands and appreciates the concerns raised regarding over-the-counter cash sales” and will comply.
The $20.2 million Dix Hills store is between eastbound exits 51 and 52. The Broome County store, located in the Town of Kirkwood on I-81 near the Pennsylvania border, opened in July 2015.
Federal Highway Administration spokesman Doug Hecox confirmed the agreement made through the letters.
State DOT spokeswoman Tiffany Portzer said Wednesday in an emailed statement: “The Taste NY program has been an overwhelming success that has grown by leaps and bounds and tripled sales over the last year.
“We are pleased the federal government understands the significant contribution the Taste NY stores provide to our economy and to New York farms and businesses. Discussions are ongoing, but with this agreement, and the addition of self-checkout kiosks, these stores will continue to expose New Yorkers and visitors alike to the world-class products made in the Empire State.”
David H. Fialkov, vice president of government affairs for NATSO, an Alexandria, Virginia-based trade organization for travel centers and truck stops throughout the country, said the over-the-counter regulations stem from the creation of the national highway system in 1956. At that time, Congress and community leaders feared towns, businesses and tax bases off the highway would shrink as motorists bypassed them. To avoid this, the sale of such commercial services as food and fuel at highway rest areas was prohibited.