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No one benefits from a food truck free-for-all

By Lynne Breaux,

The sudden popularity of food trucks in the nation’s capital is a tribute to the hard work and ingenuity of a new breed of mobile vending operators who have added a dynamic dimension to urban life. The public perception that there is a battle underway between wheeled and stationary small businesses is unfortunate. It is also counterproductive to understanding the clear need for sensible regulation that can benefit food trucks, as well as everyone else.

There is no question that entrepreneurial opportunities presented by mobile vending benefit the District and its already diverse dining scene. The Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington fully supports this burgeoning industry and already has members who have started food trucks. We also agree wholeheartedly that the existing regulations governing food truck operation are outdated.

We do, however, have serious concerns about appropriate regulation to assure the orderly management of public spaces for all stakeholders — food and retail trucks, office and commercial building tenants, residences, established businesses including restaurants and, most important, the public.

Although what we today call food trucks are relatively new, vending in public spaces in the District clearly is not. As early as 1887, the commissioners of the District of Columbia were authorized to regulate street vending, and any reasonable analysis of new regulations under consideration by the city needs to fully consider problems that have occurred over the years.

The D.C. Council conducted such an investigation when it passed the Vending Regulation Act of 2009, which requires that site permits be issued to vendors for specific locations. Two council committees held hearings, and 35 witnesses testified. The extensive report by the Council Committee on Public Services and Consumer Affairs reviewed the history and mentioned repeatedly the need for designated vending locations for many reasons, including intense competition over vending sites leading to fights and arrests.

Additionally, regulatory agencies, including the D.C. Department of Health, said that they needed to know the location of vendors so inspections could be done and the regulations enforced. The committee report, and the vending law subsequently passed by the council, also relied on an analysis of programs in other municipalities. It was recommended — unequivocally — that the District establish a permanent method of identifying places suitable for vending and a method of assigning sites.

That brings us to where we are now. Recently, the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs released draft regulations, and the agency is reviewing comments on the update. Although it does require site designations for sidewalk vendors and certain roadway vendors, DCRA’s proposal otherwise ignores the clear mandate of the Vending Regulation Act and the history that gave rise to that law.

Because of the longstanding recognition that public space is a limited public resource, there are approval processes for bus stops, bus shelters, parking spaces, loading zones, sidewalk cafes, valet parking zones and bike-sharing stations. Each of these processes requires a balancing of the needs of the public for the space and an analysis of the impact of various uses on residents and businesses.

But DCRA’s proposed vending regulations do not require any balance nor analysis of the impact of trucks at a location and instead would allow them to set up shop in any legal parking spot. Not only do we think that is bad public policy but it is directly contrary to the vending law passed by the council a mere three years ago.

Recent incidents highlight the potential consequences of getting this point wrong. Just last week, a propane tank on a food truck was leaking, necessitating the attention of more than a dozen firefighters at a busy intersection. Last fall, a propane accident injured a worker. Fortunately, neither truck was parked near the entrance to a building or business.

We trust that the city administration will not ignore 100-plus years of experience with street vending in the District. We are confident that local government will ensure that final regulations not only comply with the letter of the vending law, but also appropriately balance all of the competing uses of public space — including by our friends in the fast-growing food truck industry.

The writer is president of the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington.

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