WASHINGTON — After a now-familiar recap of the problem of truck parking, a panel at the annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board faced the sobering fact that from the perspective of the public sector, it isn’t easy to fix.
The thrust of the panel was to discuss what could be done about the inadequacy of truck parking from a public perspective; private developers of parking, like truck stops, will be expected to add spaces, as they usually do.
The panel considered the steps that could be taken to develop public parking spots, which have two significant advantages: One, they are free, since they are in public facilities, whereas some private parking comes with a charge. And two, they can actually be on an interstate highway, as private spots at places like Love’s need to be off the highway, as a matter of federal law.
That long-standing law about not putting commercial developments on interstate highways was raised as a significant impediment to using the public sector as a tool to provide more parking.
Daniel Murray, the senior vice president at the American Transportation Research Institute, the research arm sponsored by the American Trucking Associations, said that “believe it or not,” the federal ban exists. “The question is: Is that an impediment and what do we do about that?”
That led panel member Caroline Mays, director of the freight, trade and connectivity section at the Texas Department of Transportation, to say that being defeated by that regulation should not end the discussion. “I am a bit of a rebel and I would tell you we can’t walk away and say that it is a federal regulation,” she said. “Regulations can be modified and changed.”
But that regulation has never shown any sign of buckling or breaking over the years. The question then is what a public agency can do to work alongside it.
Virginia Lingham, a panel member with the engineering consulting firm WSP, said public-private partnerships might be the approach that could solve the issue.
Precisely what a so-called P3 program in truck parking would look like is unclear. Dan Pallme, assistant chief of the environment and planning bureau of theTennessee Department of Transportation, said one approach that might be taken is for governments to develop public parking on land adjacent to private truck stops. This would have the advantage of opening the possibility of the public parking being able to use the services provided by the private truck stop, including showers and food.
A P3 program also has the advantage of using the development capabilities of the private sector, which he said “can build it a lot cheaper than we can.”
Earlier in his presentation, he put the cost of developing one truck parking spot in a public facility at $275,000.
Mays said the legal framework for such an expansion doesn’t currently exist in Texas, a state that has been a leader in road construction developed through P3 projects. “There is a massive expansion of Love’s in our corridors and we can’t partner with them,” she said. “Nobody really has done that, but maybe we could if there was a mechanism.”
Murray said one potential advantage of a P3 arrangement to develop parking is that it could take the responsibility for that need away from private companies, which he said consider parking to be a “huge liability. … They only make money off of food and fuel sales,” he said. “I see a scenario where a public role could offset the cost of maintaining paved stripe lots. It could be a future model if we can get around a few impediments.”
Mays, in her earlier presentation, reviewed the stark difference between what truck drivers see as the advantages of private versus public parking spots. She cited numbers from Texas research that said at peak hours, 92% of all privately owned truck stop parking spots are being utilized in the Lone Star State, including a rate of 105% at what was described as “major national truck stops.” With a rate of 67% at more regional chains, that results in the 92% figure.
For publicly owned rest and travel information centers, the utilization figure for peak hours in Texas was 86%, with 60% at areas described as “picnic areas/pull offs.” The combined figure for that is 78%.
The complex relationships and regulations could be seen in a discussion about how something as simple as waste baskets at a public facility can be problematic.
One basic recommendation from the audience was to make waste cans higher so that truck drivers could easily pull up to them and dispose of waste without getting out of the cabs.
The problem, as the audience member said, is that sometimes that includes what he described as “bio-fecal” material that some public workers want to avoid dealing with. And one of the core reasons for that problem is that restroom facilities at such public stops can be nonexistent.
Murray cited ATRI’s work that showed 33% of all drivers were parking for the evening in what he described as an “undesignated location.” And of those, only 3.5% had an opportunity to otherwise park in an authorization location. “That leaves us with 96% that had no choice when they are on cloverleafs or on sides.”
Any time parking is on the agenda of a discussion, there is inevitable frustration over the inability to produce even small fixes that may seem obvious. For example, Pallme raised an old issue and a concurrent question: Why won’t customers allow trucks to park at the facilities where they are picking up or dropping off a load?
“If consignees would open their gates, the truck parking problem would be solved,” he said.