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For truckers, pandemic has highlighted a big need: Parking

Without allocation in virus relief package to expand parking, hopes may lie in future infrastructure bill

While airlines, Amtrak and transit have struggled to stay solvent during the coronavirus pandemic, truckers face a different crisis: There simply aren’t enough places to park.

They had hoped to get money to expand parking in the upcoming $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill, but that path seems blocked. Now, their hopes may lie in the infrastructure bill Congress is expected to pass later this year.

Stymied by a lack of parking for increasingly large tractor-trailers and forced by federal hours-of-service requirements to park after a certain amount of time on the road or be fined, truckers are parking along the exits to truck stops, along the sides of highways and in other places that put them and passing drivers at risk.

“The hardest thing of the day is to find a parking spot,” said Doug Smith, a trucker based in Bountiful, Utah. He said the pandemic has made it harder to find bathrooms and places to eat, but parking, a problem even before the pandemic, has been made worse as distribution centers, where trucks drop off or pick up loads, have barred truckers from parking because of COVID-19 concerns, putting even more demand on truck- and rest-stop parking.

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John Koglman, a truck driver from Oberlin, Ohio, said in some cases, he finds himself competing for spaces with recreational vehicle drivers: “Especially if you’re heading south, you can have 14 trucks and 10 RVs in the truck parking places.” He said the need has become more acute as tractor-trailers have become larger, requiring more space.

Historic grievance

The issue is not entirely new: In 2012, Congress passed a law requiring a survey of truck parking capacity in order to assess parking needs. The law was named in honor of Jason Rivenburg, a trucker who was killed in a robbery in 2009 after parking at an abandoned gas station because he could not find a safer place to park.

The latest survey, in 2019, found that there were about 313,000 truck parking spaces across the nation, including 40,000 at public rest areas and 273,000 at private truck stops, an increase of 6 percent and 11 percent respectively between 2014 and 2019. But of the nearly 11,700 truck drivers who took the survey, 98 percent reported problems finding safe parking.

The problem is acute enough that Rep. Mike Bost, R-Ill., who comes from a family of truckers, introduced a measure to the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee reconciliation instructions that would allocate $125 million during fiscal 2021 for truck parking programs, with increases through fiscal 2025 for a total of $755 million. The money would be used for a grant program aimed at increasing parking for truck drivers, and language in the amendment would bar rest stops or other rest areas from charging drivers to park.

Bost withdrew his amendment after committee Chairman Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., vowed to work on the issue during debate over a yet-to-be-announced highway bill. The current highway bill, an extension of the 2015 law, expires in October.

Separately, DeFazio tucked $250 million in last year’s infrastructure bill for the purpose. That bill passed the House but never progressed in the Senate.

Trucking groups say that while airlines, transit and Amtrak have received billions of dollars in aid during the pandemic, they’ve been largely ignored.

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Praised as heroes for helping keep grocery stores stocked during the coronavirus crisis, they’ve nonetheless dealt with their share of blows, such as being forbidden from using restrooms at drop-offs lest they spread the virus.

Because of this, they argue, $755 million for more parking should not be a heavy lift.

“I’m not very happy we’re spending trillions of dollars on every kind of transportation, except for trucking,” said Lewie Pugh, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association. “All truckers want is a place to take a nap. And we can’t even seem to carve that out.”

‘Awkward’ provisions

Pugh said that despite the need for federal investment in parking, he’s worried about the provision being tucked into a highway bill. While the bill that passed the House last year included money for the parking program, it also included what his organization considers “anti-trucking” provisions, such as an increase in federal liability insurance requirements to $2 million from $750,000.

They worry provisions like that will be included in the highway bill, forcing them to oppose it despite money for parking, creating a situation that Pugh calls “awkward.”

“If they put our guys out of business, it doesn’t matter if we have parking or not,” he said.

Bost, who sponsored and withdrew the amendment in the reconciliation recommendations, said truck parking isn’t just a luxury.

Truckers are required to limit their hours driving for safety purposes and can be fined if their electronic logging devices detect them driving more hours than permitted. But often, drivers need that time to find a spot and may have to drive to multiple rest areas to find a spot.

States, meanwhile, have limited truck stops, writing them off as havens for crimes such as robbery and prostitution.

“There’s a whole lot of people around the nation who spend a lot of time bad-mouthing truckers and farmers with their mouths full,” Bost said, adding that truckers have been the reason the supply chain has continued during the pandemic. “We’ve got to be sensitive about what we’re doing to these men and women.”

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