Across the United States, truck-borne freight is critical to the nation’s supply chain. Truck drivers are incredibly important to the U.S. economy, carrying 44% of the nation’s overall freight tonnage over the last five years. However, truck drivers often find themselves facing a choice between parking illegally or ignoring federal hours-of-service rules which govern how long a truck driver can drive each day. Doing the latter can lead to fines, license suspension, or loss of Department of Transportation (DOT) certification to carry goods.
Under current hours-of-service rules, truckers can drive 14 hours a day before going off-duty. Sometimes drivers spend almost an hour looking for parking, resulting in “about $5,500 in direct lost compensation—or a 12% cut in annual pay.” Approximately 96% of truckers have to park in areas not designated for trucks because of a lack of safe truck parking capacity across the country, according to Trucker Path. Per the latest Bureau of Transportation Statistics data, there are 39,803 parking spots at rest areas on the Interstate Highway Network and some 273,000 parking spaces in private lots. Yet there are 4.06 million Class 8 trucks (trucks with a gross vehicle weight rating of over 33,000 pounds) spread out across the country. The need for more safe parking in and around rest areas for truckers is clear, especially if we want to keep supply chains around the nation safe and stable.
The 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) helped push truck parking capacity to the forefront of conversations at the state level. Section 21104 of the IIJA focused on guidelines for states updating or developing freight plans, which had the most relevant sections for addressing truck parking capacity. The bill mandates that states must assess the following:
- The capabilities of both the state and the private sector to provide adequate parking facilities for vehicles engaged in interstate transportation;
- The volume of commercial motor vehicle traffic in the state; and
- Whether there are areas in the state with a shortage of adequate commercial motor vehicle parking facilities and provide an analysis of what factors could be contributing to that shortage.
However, the law does not require states to take any actions, it merely mandates further analysis of the problem.
In contrast to the IIJA, two bills emerged during the 117th Congress, which ended in January, unsuccessfully attempted to address this critical parking capacity shortage more directly: H.R. 2187, introduced by Rep. Mike Bost (R-IL), and the Senate’s companion bill, S. 5169, by Sens. Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) and Mark Kelly (D-AZ). Neither passed its respective chamber. While H.R. 2187 did make it through committee, it did not receive a vote on the House floor. S. 5169, titled the Truck Parking Safety Improvement Act (TPSIA), was referred to the Committee on Environment and Public Works, where it died.
TPSIA would have allocated $175 million for truck parking for the 2023 fiscal year and $580 million for fiscal years 2024-2026 in grants issued by the secretary of transportation if they met strict project requirements. These requirements would’ve included having projects that are on a federal-aid highway, on a facility with reasonable access to a federal-aid highway, or at a freight facility. To be eligible for grant funding under TPSIA, projects would have needed to provide new parking or maintain existing parking in rest areas. The bill’s provisions would have also provided strict spending criteria. For example, only up to 25% of any grant given could be used for the pre-construction phase, be it on cost/benefit analyses, feasibility analyses, environmental reviews, or preliminary engineering and design work.
However, TPSIA was far from flawless. TPSIA placed a ceiling on the amount of each fiscal year’s annual appropriation for existing facilities, limiting maintenance of existing capacity to 10% of the overall grant budget. It might have helped provide the resources to build new parking capacity, but it also punished states that had the forethought to build parking.
While an updated TPSIA could serve as a good framework for a federal grant program, any increased federal spending should be a last resort for any sort of capacity expansion, especially when there are better options on the table for policymakers.
The best congressional option would be a repeal of the ban on commercial services at Interstate rest areas. In 1960, Congress banned all commercial services from being provided at rest areas on Interstates. If this ban were repealed, state departments of transportation could engage in revenue-financed commercial parking facilities at rest areas across the country.
This isn’t a new idea either, at least when considering toll roads. As Robert Poole, director of transportation policy at the Reason Foundation, wrote, “many toll roads have rebuilt and modernized their service plazas, often using long-term public-private partnership (P3) procurements.”
Public-private partnerships offer many advantages over federal grants for funding new parking capacity and rest areas. Most notably, the financial risk of failure is borne by the private sector entity that wins the bid for the contract, not the taxpaying public. Providing parking at these rest areas would help to provide a consumer base for the commercial services they’d be offering at renovated locations.
The commercial interest in participating in these service plaza P3s should also be encouraging news for policymakers trying to address these issues on a dime. There’s plenty of private interest, as evidenced by the success of the service plazas along toll roads, so federal policymakers ought to work to remove barriers, like the commercial rest areas ban, preventing the private sector from acting on it.
Some states’ toll roads have already started using long-term P3 agreements for service plaza financing, rebuilding, and operating, including Indiana, Maryland, and New York, to name a few. All types of businesses, including truck stop operators, might be interested in bidding for rest areas.
By repealing, or at least loosening, the ban on commercial services at rest areas on Interstates, policymakers can effectively open the door to expanding truck parking across the country and reduce taxpayers’ costs by shifting the financial responsibility to the private sector.