Parking space for big trucks along Arkansas highways has been identified as a safety issue, which is why the state Department of Transportation and the state trucking association have teamed up to create more space for truckers needing a break.
Under an 8-year-old law, the department has up to $2 million available to promote commercial vehicle safety through public-private partnerships. The money comes from a portion of a 15% increase in commercial vehicle registration fees that the Arkansas General Assembly approved in 2013.
"Providing ample truck parking makes it easier for drivers to get rest when they need it, and then get back on the road to safely deliver America's freight," said Shannon Newton, president of the association. "Professional drivers must adhere to strict hours-of-service regulations that ensure they are rested and road-ready."
Parking 18-wheelers has been a problem for decades, and not just in Arkansas, she said.
"For the 3.5 million truck drivers in the U.S., there are only about 313,000 trucking spaces," Newton said in an email. "The situation is particularly bad here in Arkansas, with only 66-83 parking spaces per 100,000 daily truck vehicle miles traveled, according to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA)."
The highway department agrees.
"There is a great need, nationwide, for safe parking in the trucking industry," said Holly Butler, an agency spokeswoman.
The parking shortage has been compounded by the covid-19 pandemic and, more recently, the May 11 closing of the Interstate 40 bridge over the Mississippi River at Memphis.
The pandemic lockdowns kept people out of brick-and-mortar retailers. As a result, online purchases soared. Trucks were needed to deliver those packages.
The closing of the bridge left limited options to move freight across the river. Truckers were faced with long delays, at least initially, if they chose the Interstate 55 bridge, which also connects Arkansas and Tennessee at Memphis. Or they could drive miles out of their way in either direction to find another place to cross.
"Lack of available parking puts drivers in a precarious position: They are forced to operate illegally until they find safe parking; park in an unsafe or illegal location, which may put themselves or other motorists at risk," Newton said.
It also costs truckers money.
"According to the American Trucking Associations, time spent looking for available truck parking costs the average driver about $5,500 in direct lost compensation -- or a 12% cut in annual pay," Newton said. "Truck drivers give up an average of 56 minutes of available drive time per day parking early rather than risking not being able to find parking down the road."
The Arkansas Commercial Truck Safety and Education Program Committee, composed of agency and industry executives, wants to leverage the safety money to make more parking available by converting the site of a former welcome center on I-40 in West Memphis.
"We are utilizing a property that we already own," Butler said.
The first phase of the project involves about 60 parking spaces, along with restrooms and an Arkansas Highway Police substation, she said.
The committee allocated $4 million for the project. But when the bids were opened last week, the lowest of the two bids received was for a little less than $7.6 million from Kiewit Infrastructure South Co. of Fort Worth.
The department has several options. Those include adding more money for the project, scaling it back or going in another direction. Agency officials plan to discuss the options "in more detail " this week, according to Butler.
Meanwhile, the committee was set to meet later this month to consider funding for a similar project at the White River Tourist Information Center, according to Newton.
Now it is all but certain to revisit the West Memphis project.
"The committee annually reviews funding requests pertaining to commercial truck safety issues," said Kelly Crow, the association's vice president. "It is scheduled to meet later this month, at which time I anticipate those questions to be addressed."