Trucks Overwhelm Rest Areas

Dec 22, 2015

Iowa's network of highway rest areas is more popular than ever, but in recent years the comfort stops have taken on the look and feel of truck stops. It's a symptom of a worsening problem that is getting new attention. 

Vacationing families and long distance travelers have enjoyed the convenience of rest stops for 50 years. Iowa now has 38, fully-equipped with bathrooms, vending machines and picnic areas. During certain hours of the day they're crowded with many more 18-wheelers than cars. Dennis Mabie is a rest area manager for the Department of Transportation.

"We put in bigger truck parking lots and the truckers use them. It has kind of been a build it and they will come thing."

Two lanes of semis occupy spaces reserved for cars.
Credit Rick Fredericksen / Iowa Public Radio

But it's still not enough. At this I-80 rest area near Mitchellville, the scarcity of truck parking spaces is so severe that semis have pulled up alongside the entrance and exit ramps; even on the shoulders of the interstate. Transportation planner Phil Mescher is monitoring the spillover.

"We definitely have an increase in freight traffic and it's projected to continue to grow at an exponential rate. Here comes a truck right now, here’s a truck right now that’s pulled right up in front of the facility and this is the designated area for automobiles."

No one is more upset by the parking squeeze than the truckers themselves; by law, they have to pull off the road and rest after 11 hours. Kevin Stewart is hauling an oversized load to Atlanta and spent the night sleeping in his rig, blocking spaces in the automobile area.

Kevin Stewart from Montana spent the night along I-80 with his oversize cargo and his dog.
Credit Rick Fredericksen / Iowa Public Radio

"Because I parked back there in the curve and I was afraid somebody was going to come and bang on my door and be pissed because I'm in the approach way. That is technically kind of a bad thing but you got to do what you got to do."

Commercial truck stops are just as crowded as public rest areas according to Ken Sayers who just woke up to resume his journey to Salt Lake City.

"Trying to find a parking spot at truck stops is miserable and it’s unsafe. The way it is, I have to spend at least the last hour of the day looking for someplace."

A partial solution is to let drivers know in real-time where open spaces are. Iowa is sharing a federal grant with other Midwest states to implement a system using digital road signs, smart phone applications and other technologies so drivers can locate available spaces in advance. Steve Mc Menamin is a DOT administrator.

"We have 16 million people that use the rest areas every year. We found that almost every rest area at some point during the day is 120, 150 to 200 percent capacity. Yea, that's a problem."

Rigs park on shoulder of I-80 at the entrance to a rest area.
Credit Rick Fredericksen / Iowa Public Radio

Iowa tends to be more lenient on truckers that invent parking places at rest areas, but State Trooper Jim Trainor says it becomes a safety issue when they park alongside the interstate.

"It's kind of a Catch-22 because if you tell them move they could be a tired fatigued driver. We do the best we can if they start getting backed up too far on the interstate well knock on the door and tell them to move on and tell them to go to the next truck stop and kind of guide them on their way."

Transportation planners say an alert system that points drivers to open spaces could save millions of dollars for the state and trucking industry, including expenses now wasted on travel time, diesel fuel, road damage, and accidents related to drowsiness. Phil Mescher says the DOT will soon be enlisting private truck stops as partners.

"We are anticipating there could be some tenderness there that we have to be careful of, so we want to make sure they included in conversation that it’s not oversight but a common problem we're trying to solve." 

16 million visitors make comfort stops in Iowa every year.
Credit Rick Fredericksen / Iowa Public Radio

The new parking information system will initially focus on Interstate-80 from Des Moines to Davenport, a stretch that now has two dozen truck stops and rest areas totaling more than 2,300 parking spots for semis. Along I-80, I’m Rick Fredericksen, Iowa Public Radio News.