The margin needed on fuel sales to provide all that truckers expect from truckstops is more than industry wants to pay.
Trucking isn't a charity, so why does it figure it deserves free parking? If you think about it -- though we'd all prefer to deny it -- parking is a cost of doing business. It's no different from labor, tires, lawn care at the terminal, snow removal or fuel. Historically, our uneasy allies in this game, the truckstops, have provided places to park trucks on cross-country trips. Way back when, we bought fuel at the same truckstops where we parked. Now we buy fuel at filling stations and we have fewer places to park. In case you're still not prepared to admit it, there is a connection there.
There's a good reason we don't have enough parking spaces in this country: truckstop operators can't make any money with any significant acreage under asphalt because trucking won't pay for it.
It was at one time a mutually beneficial relationship. The owners of the 10 or 20 paved acres that we stored our trucks for eight or 10 hours per day charged a premium for the fuel they sold because there's no other way to to make a profit from several million dollars worth of asphalt -- short of charging people to use it. In effect, the premium on the fuel was the parking fee.
Any owner of a real truckstop will tell you that today's fuel margins don't even come close to what's needed to provide all that truckers expect from a truckstop today -- free showers, loyalty points, lit secure parking, etc.
The "truckstop" industry started back in the late 1960s as a way to market diesel fuel. Most of the pioneers came from the petroleum industry. Restaurants began sprouting up around those places because they had a captive market. Drivers became instrumental in the fuel buying decision, so truckstop operators began adding amenities like their own restaurants, showers, paved parking and the like to get the drivers' business.
The truckstop business model has changed a lot in the past 40 years, as has the way carriers do business. But for some reason, the expectations of fleets and drivers as they relate to truckstops haven't, nor has our need to stash an 80-foot long, 40-ton business tool for 10 hours or so every day.
How then, can trucking expect the truckstop industry to develop more parking facilities if we aren't prepared to favor them in trade for diesel fuel?
Jim Miller of Sacramento's 49er Truckstop charges $12.00 per day to park (or did as of a year ago when I last checked) if the customer hasn't purchased a minimum amount of fuel, or paid for some other service offered on site. He gets complaints, of course, but only from those who don't buy fuel. The 49er is the only truckstop on California's share of I-80 west of Reno, save for a few Mom & Pop locations. He's levied the charge since 1991.
"We have to charge for the parking, and we make money on it," Miller says. "It's enough to cover our costs [lighting, repair, security, etc.], but we could never develop a facility today at that rate. The reason there are no truckstops on I-80 in California is land values. You're approaching a million dollars an acre in some areas, and that's just to pencil one in. Add the development cost, the environmental assessments, etc. You just couldn't do it today."
Ironically, the drivers who complain the most are the ones who took on fuel somewhere else for a nickel a gallon less than the 49er charges. Do the math on a 100-120 gallon fill (the average fuel fill across the country), and you'd see the whole transaction (fueling and parking) would actually be seven dollars cheaper at The 49er than buying cheap fuel elsewhere and then paying to park there.
Follow the Money
Who should be paying for truck parking? Not drivers. Not the public. It has to fall back to the owners of the equipment that make use of the parking space. It's totally inappropriate for fleet owners to pass parking costs down to their drivers, and I think it's equally inappropriate for trucking to rely on the public purse to fund the facilities it uses. Parking is a cost of doing business as a long-haul fleet.
I can't think of another mode of transport that gets a similar handout for their operational expenses. Airlines pay airports all sorts of fees for landing and take-offs and tarmac fees for parking, etc. Sure airports are publicly funded to some degree, but the users still pay their share. Ditto for railroads and marine shipping. All modes pay something for use of the publicly owned facilities, such as locks and canals, etc. just as trucking pays fees for road use etc. But who should be paying to store idle equipment overnight?
Rest areas are for short-duration parking, and those -- to a diminishing degree -- are funded by fuel tax revenue and other fees trucking pays. But the inescapable fact is that every solo truck needs 10 hours sitting still somewhere every night of the week That's a cost of doing business, and one trucking has avoided paying for too long. And now the chickens are coming home to roost.
There has not been a new truck parking space built within 50 miles of a major U.S. city in the past 15 years. Over that same time, several major truckstops once located in or near these major centers have been bull-dozed and turned into shopping malls or big-box retail centers.
It's a matter of econmics. The owners of the property are sitting on real estate that far more valuable than the truckstop business, and when sold, will yeild a far better return than operating the truckstop will.
Given the cost, the permitting requirements, the not-in-my-backyard syndrome and or course the potential (or lack thereof) for profit, it's unlikely we'll ever see a new truckstop built were the trucking industry really needs them.
In the words of one 40-year veteran truckstop owner, "motor carriers concerned about parking space for their trucks had better start thinking about building terminals, or banding together to build terminals, because the truckstop chains aren't going to build where the trucking companies what them to build."
An Invisible Problem
I think this problem has been largely ignored by carriers because the problem seldom affects them directly -- but it's starting to. It's not a cost item on a balance sheet. It's a driver who wanders around in the dark looking for a place to park the carrier's truck who feels the pinch.
With HOS tightening up and EOBRs becoming more of a factor, drivers can no longer just keep on driving until they find a spot.
In a truck parking study done recently by Transport Canada, an uncomfortable number of the drivers (more than half) responding to the survey portion of the study reported running over hours while searching for appropriate parking. Equally troubling, a high number also reported running significantly under their available hours because they had found a suitable place to park and didn't want to risk running out of hours by pushing on any farther.
Fleets might finally take notice when productivity and equipment utilization starts to suffer. Until there's a item cost to parking (which there always should have been), fleets will take that service for granted and keep fueling at the cheapest possible source. I have no problem with looking for the "best" price for fuel, but once the truckstops become antique markets and shopping malls, a nickel is going to seem like a bargain compared to what the truckstops left standing will be able to charge for parking.