Scarce truck parking has Atlanta looking for solutions

Billy Jones, 57 of Jacksonville, Fla., talks about his experiences as a truck driver at the Fairburn Family Travel Center. (Photo Chris Hunt/Special)

Billy Jones, 57 of Jacksonville, Fla., talks about his experiences as a truck driver at the Fairburn Family Travel Center. (Photo Chris Hunt/Special)

Truck driver Billy Jones passes through Atlanta two or three times a week on his cross-country travels. If he needs a break or place to sleep, he knows of only a handful of spots here where he can park his rig.

There’s the Petro station on I-285 at U.S. 78, west of Atlanta. There’s the Pilot at I-285 and Bouldercrest Road in DeKalb County. And there’s the Fairburn Family Travel Center off I-85 at Senoia Road, south of the city, where Jones killed time last Friday while waiting to pick up a load at a Kraft Foods warehouse.

Not nearly enough parking exists in metro Atlanta for Jones and other truckers who must comply with federal rules that limit how many hours they can drive – a shortage that’s about to get worse, thanks to new enforcement procedures.

It’s a nationwide problem that’s especially bad in large metro areas like Atlanta.

It’s illegal to park on Georgia highways, and only a few private truck stops can accommodate a significant number of trucks. Public parking spaces at rest areas and weigh stations are even scarcer. If drivers park in a private lot without permission, they could be towed or fined.

Truckers aren’t the only ones who pay the price for that lack of parking.

All those truck drivers looking for a place to park? They're stuck in traffic with you, contributing to some of the world's worst traffic congestion. A recent Atlanta Regional Commission survey found half of truck drivers spend more than an hour driving around here looking for a place to park.

“That’s trucks that are driving more than an hour for essentially no reason,” said Daniel Studdard, ARC’s freight planner. “It’s slowing down everybody else in the region.”

ARC is trying to address the problem.

One likely solution – more private truck stops – may not sit well with local residents, who object to the noise and other nuisances that many associate with truck stops. But with freight traffic in Atlanta expected to rise 76 percent in coming decades, they may not have much choice.

Romance vs. reality

Truck drivers have been romanticized as working-class heroes for decades. Life on the road, CB-radio slang, mischievous run-ins with sheriffs – they're the cliches of a supposedly free-wheeling lifestyle.

The reality is less romantic. Jones returns to his family in Jacksonville four days a month. He spends the rest of his time traveling to warehouses in Atlanta, Illinois, South Carolina and Missouri.

Far from free-wheeling, the lives of truckers like Jones are tightly regulated. Federal rules limit them to working 14 hours a day, and they can drive only 11. During that time, they also must take at least a 30-minute break.

What’s more, their schedules are “dictated by everybody else,” according to Scott Grenerth, director of regulatory affairs for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, an industry group.

Truckers usually have appointments to pick up and drop off their loads, he said. If they’re late, they may have to wait a while, which could make them late for other appointments. Even if they’re on time, warehouse employees may not be ready for them – or even know they’re coming.

Throw in unpredictable traffic – especially in Atlanta – and sticking to a schedule can be hard.

“Drivers can’t even plan where they’re going to end up until late in the day,” Grenerth said.

That makes the search for parking difficult, especially when there’s not enough.

The ARC survey found eight local counties — including Gwinnett, Cobb, Cherokee and Fayette – have no private parking spaces for truckers. Five others have 50 or less. Even in Fulton County, which has more than 500 spaces, there’s a scarcity in some areas.

Public parking spaces are even harder to find in metro Atlanta – just a single weigh station in Douglas County with about 10 spaces.

With tens of thousands of trucks traveling metro Atlanta highways every day, parking spots fill up quickly. So some truckers park illegally on interstate ramps or on private property without permission.

Willy Seals, a 70-year-old Jonesboro driver, recalled parking at a metro Atlanta Home Depot, which he thought was OK. But a tow-truck operator placed a restraining boot on his truck and wouldn’t remove it until Seals coughed up $250.

New federal rule

There will be more truckers scrambling for parking come December, when a new federal rule will require them to use electronic logs to track their time. The rule is intended to make the nation’s highways safer by ensuring truckers strictly follow the 11-hour driving limit.

Currently, some truckers falsify their time reports on hand-written logs. That will no longer be possible – making it crucial for drivers to get off the road after 11 hours. If they don’t, they could be fined and receive black marks on their driving record that could make it harder to get jobs.

That makes the need for more parking urgent.

The ARC will develop possible solutions in the coming months, with recommendations likely early next year.

The region could encourage companies – perhaps with tax incentives – to allow drivers to park on their property if they’re picking up or delivering there anyway. The state could build more highway rest stops in the Atlanta area.

But part of the solution likely involves more private truck stops – especially in counties where there are none now.

That may alarm residents worried about drugs, prostitution and other crimes associated with truck stops in the public imagination.

Grenerth said that image is wrong. He said truck drivers want what everyone wants in a roadside stop – clean bathrooms and a safe place to sleep.

“People think truck drivers have all this free time on their hands to fool around and do all kinds of drugs, spending all night partying like animals and doing every illicit act under the sun,” he said.

Gwinnett County Commission Chairwoman Charlotte Nash chairs the ARC committee that will develop parking recommendations. She said even the best truck stops can bring 24-hour noise and light to communities that aren’t used to it.

“You can’t just put a big truck parking lot in the middle of a residential neighborhood,” Nash said. “Finding the right areas is going to be tough in many parts of the region.”

But with so much commerce in Atlanta dependent on trucks – not just manufacturing and shipping, but delivering everyday necessities to millions of people – more areas may have to roll out the welcome mat to truckers.

“People don’t want trucks in their town,” Jones said. “But they don’t want to starve to death.”