The Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association (PMTA) has raised concerns about the state’s closure of its rest stops with the Keystone State’s officials and a resumption of permitted parking at those sites is possible.
Kevin Stewart, the president of PMTA, told FreightWaves that the state is “going to reevaluate over the next day or so” its decision to close Pennsylvania’s 65 rest stops.
The concern Stewart has is that if the rest stops are reopened just for parking, the bathroom facilities will remain closed. Those bathroom facilities are especially important for drivers taking their mandatory 30-minute rest break, he said.
Stewart noted that most of his drivers will use overnight facilities at truck stops for their longer breaks. But it is the relatively bare bones rest stops that provide a lot of capacity for the shorter breaks. (Those rest stops are essentially three things: parking spots, vending machines and bathrooms without showers.)
As reported, a state spokeswoman told FreightWaves that the state was reevaluating the decision.
Stewart said Pennsylvania officials might not have been aware of the impact of their decision on the trucking sector. “I don’t think initially they did,” he said. The PMTA was not aware of the shutdowns until the announcement came out on March 16. “We were not privy to that,” Stewart said.
A spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Transportation said the closure impacts not only the limited facilities at the rest stops, like bathrooms and vending machines. It also shuts down parking access as well.
“We are reevaluating,” spokeswoman Alexis Campbell told FreightWaves in a text message. “However, we must also consider the ability of our contract cleaners to provide staffing adequate to maintain clean, safe and sanitary facilities while limiting the exposure risk to staff and public.”
The rest stops in Pennsylvania have limited facilities but also have one highly attractive feature – they are free and legal to park. As a truck driver noted in a Facebook truckers group, the alternative will now be the shoulders of the highway. (Though truckers pulling goods that exempt them from the current Hours of Service rule may be able to spend some more time searching for better parking than a shoulder.)
The closures took pace at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday, March 17. The state, in its announcement, noted that there already had been closures in place in Montgomery, Delaware, Bucks and Chester counties, all of them in the Philadelphia suburbs.
Ravi Shanker, who heads the transportation research team at Morgan Stanley, criticized the Pennsylvania move.
“A functioning, safe rest stop is of paramount importance to a long-haul trucker,” Shanker wrote in a report issued Tuesday afternoon. “As the CFO of one large trucking operator told us in response to this news, ‘If America wants its Purell, toilet paper, food and alcohol delivered, our drivers need to have a place to stay, use the restroom facilities and park when they run out of driving hours.’”
No other states have been confirmed to have shut its rest stops other than Pennsylvania. However, there are reports that some states have closed bathrooms at the rest stops while continuing to allow parking. Nebraska reportedly is in that category though state officials could not be immediately reached for confirmation.
Meanwhile, the search for parking led the owner of a seven-year old loadboard company, Riteload LLC, to offer up five spots on a Facebook group for truckers. Matthew Kane, the founder and CEO of the company, has spaces on offer at an office building he is refurbishing in the Philadelphia suburb of Bucks County.
“I just wanted to try to do it during this whole nonsense of shutting parking spots down,” Kane told FreightWaves, adding he may not even be legally allowed to make the offer. “But I did it anyway,” he said.
While five spots is a drop in the bucket, the offer on the Facebook group Rates & Lanes set off a chorus of praise. “God bless you and your company, a role model for the industry” was one post that pretty much summed up the sentiment.
The building being renovated has no bathroom facilities at this point, Kane said. But he has leased portable toilets for the site.
Shanker referred to a broader unease – that the Pennsylvania restrictions are just one roadblock that truckers are encountering even as the demand for their services continues to rise.
“Even if this decision is reversed and the Pennsylvania rest stops are open, truckers across the country have been reporting disruptions to their operations due to emergencies and other restrictions,” he said.
And there have been various unconfirmed reports from truckers of problems that appear to be linked to the coronavirus, including shippers not having the staff to take deliveries. Whether that’s occurring at vital locations like supermarkets is not known. But as Shenker said, “we do not see other transportation modes practicably stepping in to fill any disruption in long-haul trucking given the size of the trucking market relative to other modes as well as its speed and efficiency, which will be paramount in the current environment.”
Meanwhile, the National Association of Truckstop Operators released a letter it received Tuesday from Jim Mullen, the acting administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA).
In the letter, Mullen said that FMCSA “recognizes the integral role that travel centers and truckstops play in the Nation’s supply chain.” And it said in the “coming weeks and months, it will be critical that these businesses remain open, 24 hours per day, providing America’s truck drivers with fuel, food, showers, repair services, and opportunities to rest.”
It added that it was welcome to request from NATSO members on how FMCSA could be “helpful.”