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Parking for semis is so scarce it leaves truckers in peril and feeling 'homeless'

 Trucker Micheal Collins starts driving by 3 A.M. just so he can find a place to park when he's done for the day
Frank Morris
Trucker Micheal Collins starts driving by 3 A.M. just so he can find a place to park when he's done for the day.

Leroy Hershberger drives an 80-foot-long semi truck all night. Every night.

That way he can park during the day when most other truckers hump their way to their next destination.

“Parking sucks,” he said while fueling his semi at the Petro Travel Center in Oak Grove, Missouri. “Truck stops at night after 4 o’clock … pretty much full.”

Truckers increasingly struggle to find places to park their rigs even as federal law bars them from powering on endlessly looking for a place to stop.

They’re not allowed to work for more than 14 hours a day. And once they stop, they’re required to wait 10 hours before hitting the road again.

But the growing scarcity of truck parking puts those drivers in trouble and slows down an economy increasingly dependent on moving fuel, food and whatever you order online down the highway.

Meanwhile, truckers get ever more frustrated that Washington has failed to find enough safe places for them to pull over.

Michael Collins schedules his work around parking. The early-evening view of that Oak Grove truck stop from his parked cab explains why.

“Well, you see it, there's really no parking,” he said. “So, around two o'clock in the morning, they're gonna be double parked everywhere, because there's just nowhere to park.”

When truck stops like this one get full, the rest areas do, too. Drivers find themselves hunting for parking on Interstate off-ramps, on side streets, or at abandoned gas stations.

Drivers have been robbed, even killed parking like that. The American Transportation Research Institute surveys drivers each year. For the last three years, parking has been their top concern — edging out fuel prices and driver pay.

Todd Spencer, the President of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, or OOIDA, said the problem gets worse each year because the growing number of trucks on the road outpaces the number of new parking spots.

“There is one parking space for every 11 trucks on the road," he said. "One for 11, 11 trucks.”

And that’s a drag on the economy. A 2016 survey found drivers spend almost an hour a day, on average, looking for parking. That’s an hour they could be moving goods closer to their final destinations. The study found that cuts some drivers’ productivity by up to 9,300 miles a year.

None of this comes as news to the trucking industry. It’s been trying, with limited success, to beef up parking.

But Spencer said most plans to build new truck stops run into local opposition. People living nearby often resist adding a brightly lit, noisy, smelly, all-night business of a type that can attract prostitution and sex trafficking.

States don’t have a lot of incentive to build spaces. The drivers that use public truck parking are almost all out-of-state residents who might otherwise patronize a tax-paying business down the road.

“So truck parking is competing with bridge projects,” said George O’Connor, the OOIDA Washington spokesman. “I mean if you're an elected official, are you going to go cut a ribbon in front of a bridge? Are you going to cut a ribbon in front of a truck stop?”

Federal legislation may help. Earlier this year, U.S. Reps. Dusty Johnson, a South Dakota Republican, and Jim Costa, a California Democrat, introduceda bill that would spend almost $800 million on commercial truck parking.

Meantime, truckers like Mike Nichols will keep trolling for spots as they approach their limit on driving time.

“Depending on where you’re at it, feels like being homeless,” said Nichols. “Because you don’t know where you’re going to sleep.”

Frank Morris is a national correspondent for NPR based at KCUR in Kansas City.