A lack of safe places to park and poor planning are causing some truckers who reach their legal daily driving limit to shut down on highway shoulders and ramps, creating unexpected hazards for inattentive motorists.
The issue has worsened as rising freight demand has led to more trucks crisscrossing America’s interstates.
Nearly constant congestion on heavily traveled corridors like Interstate 95 from Maine to Florida and routes into and out of the nation’s ports has made parking a difficult to find. A lack of available land to add spaces for parking worsens the situation.
A booming oil industry has soaked up available parking in West Texas, forcing truckers along Interstate 10 to look harder for open spaces.
SEEKING A SOLUTION
Federal and state authorities and the owners of private truck plazas are working on the problem. But a universal fix is elusive because no common communication system lets drivers know where parking is available in highly populated areas along heavily traveled routes.
Truckers list parking as their second-biggest concern after federal hours-of-service rules that dictate how long they can drive before taking a mandatory break. The enforcement of electronic logging devices that track driving time has worsened the scramble for open parking.
“If you can’t get shut down in a major area by 4 p.m. you’re not going to find a place to park,” said Gregory Boyd, a contract driver for Landstar System Inc.
Truck parking ranked fifth overall on the 2018 Top 10 critical issues in the trucking industry, compiled annually by the American Transportation Research Institute, the research arm of the American Trucking Associations. Trucking companies and drivers agreed it is a problem but disagreed on its severity.
ATRI’s top research priority for 2019 is standardizing truck-parking information systems, eliminating a mishmash of internet apps that count the number of available spaces in different ways.
“Some are crowd-sourced. Some are real-time information. And some are truck counts taken every two hours, which is why we have to do this nationwide,” said Dan Murray, ATRI vice president.
Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin shared a $25 million federal grant to create real-time signs to let truckers know how many parking spaces are open at rest stops on their routes. Four states have the signs in place. The others will follow in coming months.
“They’re beautiful,” Boyd said. “It really does help a lot. For the most part, they’re pretty right on.”
But each state created its own system instead of networking the signs together so that, for example, a driver in eastern Ohio would be able to see what parking was available in Chicago.
Intelligent Imaging Systems Inc. installed in-ground sensors at 18 rest stops in Ohio that provide information on how many parking spots are available. But they do not communicate with systems in the other seven states.
“It’s not a technology issue,” said Eugene Conti, a consultant to Drivewyze Inc., a subsidiary of Intelligent Imaging. “It’s a state-jurisdiction issue. Most states aren’t willing to link up those systems across state lines.”
Forty percent of truckers in those eight states said they spent 31-60 minutes a day looking for parking, and more than 30 percent of drivers spent one to two hours, ATRI found in a 2018 survey.
“When you cross the state line, you don’t want to have to get out a new data dictionary to try to understand how the system changed,” Murray said. “We’ll spend the next year asking drivers what system they use, what they like and don’t like, and what they would change.”
State-run rest stops account for only 10 percent of truck parking, according to NATSO, which represents 1,400 travel plazas and truck stops nationwide. Services range from diesel fuel to convenience stores and hot showers. In some places, making a purchase of fuel, food or some other item grants access to a spot in a gated parking area.
Fleet operators cut the best deals they can on fuel but rarely negotiate for truck parking, said Lisa Mullings, NATSO chief executive.
“If that conversation was happening more often, we would see a lot more parking being built,” she said.
TravelCenters of America has 47,415 parking spaces for trucks across 43 states. More than 85 percent are free, said Tom Liutkus, a company senior vice president.
“New locations have opened throughout the country,” he said. “But tight corridors often are impossible for anyone to expand.”
Love’s Travel Stops plans to add 40 locations and more than 3,000 truck parking spaces this year. It added 2,900 spaces at 35 new locations in 2018, bringing its total to more than 480 locations in 41 states.
“The truck-parking shortage is a continued focus for us,” said Greg Love, co-chief executive.
Free parking works as long as expanding state-run rest areas do not compete in the fuel and convenience business, Liutkus said. Grants and tax breaks would encourage truck stop operators to expand faster in many areas. Cutting red tape in zoning regulations also would help.
On a national level, the Federal Highway Administration in 2017 formed stakeholder work groups to study the challenges of truck parking, including funding, finance and regulations.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced $53.2 million in FHWA grants, including $6.8 million to set up a truck parking availability detection- and information-sharing system across 37 public rest areas along the Interstate 10 corridor that runs from California through Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.
Several independent drivers interviewed by Trucks.com said they are fine with paying for a place to park overnight.
“If I know I am going to have a problem, I’ll just pay for one early in the day,” said Randy Sauder, who runs out of Denver, Pa.
“It should never be the responsibility of the driver to find a parking spot,” said Henry Albert, an owner-operator in North Carolina. “It should be the responsibility of the person who owns the truck.”
Finding parking requires advance planning and flexibility, drivers said.
“You can plan stuff only so much because there may be a wreck that closes down the interstate for 10 hours,” Boyd said. “You need to outline your life in pencil. You don’t put it in pen so you can change stuff.”