Parking: The Long-Distance Truck Driver’s Prayer

Fall 2020 Issue
By: Robert T. Dunphy
Parking for long-distance truckers can often be dangerous. It can also be difficult to find. Getty Images

Demand for truck parking exceeds supply in many parts of the country.

Traffic congestion is a growing concern for motorists, but parking is generally not, except for a few problem areas. Drivers can generally expect to find a convenient, and free, space near their destination thanks to generous local parking standards. This is especially true in the suburbs, which have created an abundance of parking.

However, that’s not the case for large commercial trucks. Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) studies have found that demand for truck parking exceeds the available supply in public and private facilities across much of the country, and this shortage is particularly severe in some regions. This includes major economic centers such as Chicago, the Interstate 95 corridor and the Northeastern states clustered around the New York City metropolitan area, and I-5 and the western corridor connecting major West Coast ports and freight activity. Their surveys found that four out of 10 drivers reported taking an hour or longer to find parking. If parking was not available in a designated truck area, options were shopping centers, delivery locations, off ramps, or an abandoned lot or isolated area.

Eighty-eight percent of truck drivers said they felt unsafe while parked during mandatory rest or while waiting for pickup or delivery of a load during the past 12 months. Greater awareness of this issue came in response to the 2009 murder of truck driver Jason Rivenburg, who was shot and killed while parked at an abandoned gas station in South Carolina. The federal legislation requiring more provisions for truck driver safety was named Jason’s Law in his memory.

Demand Keeps Rising

Demand for truck parking has increased with e-commerce booming, “hours of service” rules that force drivers to take breaks and the growing difficulty in developing new parking.
Truck travel is growing faster than passenger driving. The FHWA predicts that travel by combination trucks will grow at more than twice the rate of passenger vehicles and light trucks between 2017 and 2047 — 1.9% annually, compared to 0.7% for light trucks and passenger vehicles.

Truck safety rules mandate that after 11 hours on the road, the driver must park and begin a 10-hour rest break.  Unlike passenger cars, which can cruise for a space when encountering parking difficulties (and usually find one quickly), trucks are under the regulatory gun to find something fast and convenient — legal or not.

Most designated truck parking spaces are privately owned. A total of 272,698 spaces (88%) are at private truck stops; 36,222 spaces (12%) are at public rest areas. Developers of expanded or new lots face the challenges of limited and expensive sites, as well as zoning issues and public opposition to loud noises and pollution generated by trucks.

Additionally, formerly rural areas have seen expanded growth from once-distant metro areas as competition from urban uses raises land prices.

The long-term solution to the truck-parking shortage is expanding parking. That is a special challenge for the mostly private operators who must find accessible, affordable sites, get them permitted and built, and operate them profitably. However, there is a growing list of successes, and many of them have been documented by the National Coalition on Truck Parking, which was created by the FHWA.

In Wamsutter, Wyoming, the Wyoming Department of Transportation (WYDOT) used a state grant to build a facility for 43 long-term truck parking spaces in a secure, lighted area adjacent to Interstate 80. WYDOT constructed these spots next to an existing truck stop offering food and shelter, which are important amenities for long-distance truckers. The project also helps alleviate local complaints about makeshift parking within the community and spillover problems from weather-related highway closures. The project cost $916,000, with FHWA contributing $829,000.

A joint venture called National Truck Parking acquired a 51-acre truck-and-trailer parking facility near Miami International Airport for $8.1 million in 2019. The site is for the storage of trucks not in use — overnight parking for local trucks or longer-term parking for trucks that are awaiting shipments. The site has 1,300 parking spots, with controlled access and on-site property management, and the owner intends to expand access to neighboring mechanic and tire services. It operates similar to a self-storage model, where every space is like a locker. A simple license is used for tenants, which include big companies and independent owner/operators.

A truck parking facility will be developed as part of a $55 million reconstruction of a major interchange on I-95 in northern Miami-Dade County. The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) owned land at one of its interchanges that contained a park-and-ride transit facility. It is being redeveloped with improved passenger facilities near a rail stop. The Golden Glades Truck Travel Center (GGTTC), located on a 17-acre parcel, will provide 135 truck parking spaces, fuel pumps and amenities. These could possibly include a truck electrification system, an electrical connection that allows a truck to run cabin heat or air conditioning without idling the engine. The GGTTC is envisioned as a public-private partnership, according to the project director Carlos Castro, freight coordinator for FDOT. FDOT expects to issue an RFP in 2021.

Demonstrated Need, Challenging Solutions

The critical need for additional truck parking is clear. Federal and state transportation leaders recognize and are planning for solutions, although it is not yet a major concern for the broader public. It is unlikely that privately developed truck stop operators will be able to expand quickly. Many of these operators report that parking is generally available except during certain peak hours, and especially in the East Coast and certain urban areas where demand exceeds supply. In these locations, the costs of most needed sites is prohibitive, and their availability is scarce because of local opposition.

Development of new sites in certain high-cost regions is a possibility. Creating a supply of targeted sites by local/state initiatives as part of a strategic program seems the most likely path to deliver the necessary inventory, likely through a public/private program. Initiatives such as those in Wyoming and Florida prove it is possible. Similar efforts, through financial assistance, could make sure that the needed funding is available. To make a meaningful dent in the problem, they must be widely replicated.

Robert Dunphy is a transportation consultant, an Emeritus Fellow of the Transportation Research Board, and an Adjunct Professor in Georgetown University’s Real Estate Program in the School of Continuing Studies.

Trucking in a Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the importance of trucking to society, the economy and consumers. During the height of the crisis, trucks delivered medicines, medical supplies, food and fuel, and a variety of online orders as an option to shuttered retail stores.

The Department of Homeland Security declared truck drivers, and employees at truck stops and rest areas, to be essential workers. That meant they could continue operations as state and local governments implemented curfews and shelter-in-place mandates. The Department of Transportation suspended some regulations requiring drivers to take off-road breaks while making deliveries, and Customs and Border Protection, which partially closed the U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico to “non-essential” travel, deemed truck traffic as essential and permitted trucks to continue to cross. Travel plazas and truck stops converted their restaurants to allow for take-out options. Meanwhile, fewer people were driving. That was a major hit to federal and state gas tax revenues, which are a critical source of revenue to highway trust funds.

According to a study by the road ecology project at the University of California, Davis, vehicle miles traveled in California were down statewide between 61% and 90% as a result of various stay-at-home orders issued by Gov. Gavin Newsom. That decline reduced fuel tax funds for California transportation projects by an estimated $46 million per week.

The impacts on trucking travel have been mixed. According to a study by the American Transportation Research Institute, there was an increase in truck traffic from early February into March for the states studied, reflecting high consumer demand for items such as non-perishable food and paper products, as well as much-needed emergency medical supplies. However, the stay-at-home orders that shut down major segments of the economy resulted in a decline in April trucking operations.

Technology Helps Locate Truck Parking

With the growing automation of the trucking industry and highway travel, one approach to making parking easier is better information on available spaces for truckers. Such a program was developed with help from a U.S. Department of Transportation grant. Eight states launched a truck parking information management system or TPIMS in 2019 to help truck drivers more easily locate available commercial vehicle parking spaces at state-run rest areas and select private truck stops around the Midwest. The system, called “Trucks Park Here,” collects truck parking availability data using a variety of in-pavement and parking lot entrance/exit sensors. Each state takes a slightly different approach on where the data is displayed. Some place information on digital message boards on the roadway, while others make information available to existing in-cab systems or via apps for drivers.