Nobody likes having to pay for something that once came free, but we now face a crisis-level shortage of truck parking spaces in this country. It can't possibly come as a surprise to anyone that that the days of free parking are over.
Fleets have been overnighting their equipment at truck stops for decades, and in all but a few instances, they pay nothing for the privilege. I believe that truck stop operators have every right to charge for overnight parking – and that fleets should be paying for it, not drivers.
Parking is a cost of doing business for over-the-road carriers, just like repairing tires or replacing burned-out headlights. Why have we historically presumed that truck stops owe us free parking?
The Origins of Free Truck Parking
It’s a story that dates back to the 1960s, when long-haul trucking was still in its infancy. Until that time, trucks stayed close to their home terminals and drivers didn't buy a lot of fuel from outside retailers. But as the long-haul sector grew, more drivers started buying fuel from independent fuel retailers. Soon, dirt-lot diners began springing up close to fuel retailers that catered to truck drivers.
Then a few of the oil companies began bringing all the services that drivers needed under one roof, on one property and under single ownership. Drivers at that time were instrumental in the fuel-buying decision, so truck-stop operators began adding amenities such as showers, repair shops, paved parking, and the like just to get the drivers’ business.
Competition drove the truck stops to start offering perks like free check cashing, free showers, S&H Green Stamps, etc., and in many cases, “cash back” on fuel purchases. The truck stops soon realized that padding the fuel invoice by a few cents a gallon and handing the difference to the driver drove cash business into their restaurants.
That practice came to a halt with computerized billing and corporate accounts, and truck stops lost that little marketing advantage. They continued to offer free showers and parking, but those didn't make the truck stops any money. They are costs of doing business, but it kept the drivers coming in.
Those driver perks were sustainable back then because there was enough margin on the fuel they sold. That's no longer the case. Two truck stop operators I spoke with a few years ago said they would need a margin of about 10-20 cents per gallon to make a reasonable profit and support the free amenities drivers have come to expect from truck stops – including parking.
Thanks to the discount fuel stops, often with fewer than a dozen parking spaces, the large full-service truck stops can't compete on fuel prices, and fleets now often instruct drivers on where to buy fuel. If those plans don't include a full-service truck stop, the driver will fuel at the discount outlet and then drive across the highway to spend the night at the big place – the one with all the free parking.
Free parking is unsustainable in the current market, and trucking is now paying the price for not ponying up decades ago to support their industry partners, the truck-stop operators.
The Real Cost of Truck Parking?
That parking spot may be free to you, but the truck stop operator has a ton of money tied up those 20 acres of asphalt. Consider first the permitting, environmental, development and drainage costs, and then the cost of 20 acres of blacktop on top of a substrate strong enough for a couple of hundred tractor-trailers, then imagine going to your bank manager and asking for a few million dollars for something that will never make you any money. Is it any wonder that we haven't seen a new truck stop built anywhere close to an urban area in the last 20 years or so?
The owner of a mid-sized truck stop in rural New Brunswick, Canada, once told me each of the parking spots on his lot cost about $15,000 to develop, with permits, clearing and paving. His annual lot maintenance and snow removal costs about $75,000. He says refuse services for the facility are close to $30,000 a year, and then there’s lighting, sewage, property taxes on top of it all. Given its location, that place would have been on cheap side to develop.
Another truck-stop operator I know told me that it took him eight years and a whole lot of money to even get a shovel in the ground. He said the locals were dead set against the project, even though nobody lives within a mile of the place. The permits and environmental safeguards he had to install were, in his words, overkill, but they were all conditions that had to be met.
About 15 years ago, Fred Kirschner, then the operator of a 30-acre, 285-space TA/Petro Stopping Center near Scranton, Pennsylvania, told me that motor carriers concerned about parking space for their trucks had better start thinking about building terminals or banding together to build terminals, because the truck stop chains aren't going to build where the trucking companies want them to build.
“It’s just too expensive, and you can’t get the permits anymore,” he said at the time.
It's Time to Pay the Piper
The old truck stop business model doesn't work anymore. When drivers and fleets patronized those places, the operators could still make a little money. Today, with fuel buying decisions based on the absolute lowest cost, the big fuel service truck stops are priced out of the game in many cases. Even driver aren't spending the money in truck stops they once did because of the cost of the food and services.
To be fair, it can cost upwards of 30 bucks a day for two decent meals in a good restaurant, and that's a big chunk of a driver’s earnings. The truck stops, instead, sell fast food. Often condemned as an unhealthy alternative, that’s where the profit is for the truck stops. Even the fuel stops offer quick-serve menus, which saps even more revenue from the bigger places with all the parking.
Trucking and the truck stop industry once had a mutually beneficial relationship, but that’s not really the case anymore, and it hasn’t been for quite a while. While researching a story I wrote back in 2003 about the future of truck stops, I came across a quote from Forest Baker, the former president of a firm called Transportation Research & Marketing. Speaking at a convention of the National Association of Truck Stop Operators (now known simply as NATSO) in 2003, Baker took truck fleets to task for trying to squeeze the last penny of profit from truck stops on fuel purchases.
“I used to think we were in a three-legged race with the fleets, with our middle legs strapped together,” Baker said. “If we didn’t run together, we would fall and become bruised and muddy. But from what I’m hearing recently [and this was in 2003], the fleets think we're in a wheelbarrow race and they’re trying to pull us over the line backward with our noses in the mud. That isn’t fair!”
That was 15 years ago, and that remark is even more prescient today – at a time when we need truck stops more than ever.
Fleets should be paying to park their trucks overnight. It’s a cost of doing business for long-haul operators, and the rates should reflect that, like fuel surcharges reflect the price of fuel. It’s the shipper that ultimately ought to pay for the overnight storage for 80 feet and 80,000 pounds of truck. I don’t think that idea will go over well, but it can’t be any worse that forcing drivers to pay to park their boss’s truck.
Related: The Price of a Night's Rest