This spring the already-serious problem of insufficient safe parking spaces for long-haul trucks has gotten significantly worse. As noted last issue, the new federal effort to seriously enforce federal Hours of Service (HOS) rules, thanks to electronic log books (ELDs), means thousands of drivers are desperate to find a safe place to park and sleep before their allowed on-road time expires.
The American Transportation Research Institute, affiliated with the American Trucking Associations (ATA), reported in April that drivers now spend an average of an hour per day of drive time looking for a safe place to park. And during evening hours, ATRI found that 63% of drivers spend 15 minutes or longer looking for parking.
State DOTs are trying to help. The Midwest Association of State Transportation Officials is launching a Truck Parking Information & Management System along nine high-volume freight corridors, due to be fully operational by summer 2019. Florida DOT has an in-state project of the same kind under way. But those efforts can only reduce search time to existing parking areas, some of which are miles from the Interstates that are this country’s most important truck corridors.
Those Interstates are an underutilized resource. Nearly all have some “rest areas,” but those have only limited numbers of truck parking spaces and no services at all, except for vending machines. In hot or cold weather, a driver who parks there to sleep in his cab must keep the diesel engine running all night to provide heat or air conditioning, and cannot purchase food or fuel—or take a shower. Those amenities are lacking due to a federal law that bans “commercializing” Interstate highway rest areas. The ban is vociferously defended by the trade association NATSO, whose members include truck- stop chains, gas stations, and fast-food chains. They portray commercialization as “governments” competing unfairly with tax-paying businesses (their members) at or near (or not so near) off-ramps.
There are many problems with NATSO’s position. First, they portray the situation as zero-sum—any truck-stop or service plaza added to a rest area on an Interstate would displace, one-for-one, a comparable business off the Interstate. But the situation trucking faces today is a desperate need for expansion of safe overnight truck parking and the amenities that should go with it. Those amenities include electrification, so that the driver need not keep the motor running all night to have air conditioning, restaurant and shower facilities, perhaps recreation (video games?), refueling, and, in coming years, electric vehicle recharging, perhaps hydrogen refueling, etc. This should be a great business opportunity.
Commercializing Interstate rest areas—initially to serve the growing needs of trucking—would seem to offer Pilot Flying J, Travel Centers of America, and other truck-stop chains an opportunity to work with state DOTs (and possibly private financiers) to convert nearly useless “rest areas” into oases for truckers. I don’t know how much clout the major truck-stop chains have within NATSO, but somebody there should be starting this conversation.
Removing the federal ban will require getting legislation through Congress; that will be very difficult if both NATSO and ATA continue their current lobbying to maintain the status quo. But since the need is to expand capacity, perhaps there are transition measures that could make this change less threatening to the smaller NATSO members. What if Congress provided a 10-year transition period during which only companies that were NATSO members as of the date the law is changed could bid on contracts to operate at the commercialized Interstate rest areas? Seriously, can we start thinking outside the box on this problem?
(This article first ran in the June 2018 issue of Surface Transportation Innovations)
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