When French fur trappers were first finding their way around the Great Lakes Region more than three centuries ago, they used a long-established Indian trail to travel between the two points that would eventually become Chicago and Detroit. It was slow going, but at least they could stop and set up camp pretty much wherever they wanted.
In recent decades, I-94 has been the primary route between those two highly industrialized cities. For the past three years, the Michigan Department of Transportation has been using a portion of this heavily traveled freight corridor for a trailblazing project to help alleviate truckers’ daily struggle to find parking.
In August 2014, MDOT launched its Truck Parking Information Management System (TPIMS), which monitors truck parking areas along the route and provides real-time information to truckers as to available spaces up ahead, saving them time and money and helping prevent the costly and dangerous practice of parking illegally.
Several states in recent years have been developing variations of the TPIMS concept, but the Michigan system is the first of its kind, a 24/7/365 system that monitors both public and private parking areas and has helped serve as something of a template for a much more ambitious vision.
The Mid America Association of State Transportation Officials (MAASTO) is in the process of creating a TPIMS that will cover highways in eight Midwestern states, including Michigan. Funded through a $25 million federal TIGER grant and $3.66 million in state matching funds, the Kansas Department of Transportation is the lead grant applicant and coordinator for the project.
“All of our DOTs, they’re going to tell you one of their first priorities is safety,” said Davonna Moore, assistant bureau chief of transportation planning for the Kansas DOT. “Everybody’s thinking about it.”
The issue of truck parking came into focus in government circles with the passage of a bill in 2012 called Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century — or MAP-21. It included a section called Jason’s Law, which mandated a study of the nation’s truck parking problem and opened up federal highway funds for states to use on truck parking projects.
In that survey, 85 percent of drivers reported spending 30 minutes or more per day finding a place to park. Nationwide, this works out to more than $7 billion a year in operational costs spent on parking.
That doesn’t include the money drivers lose when they choose to sacrifice driving time to find parking before they hit their Hours of Service limit rather than run the risk of having to park illegally. Either choice can be costly.
Since most CMV drivers are paid by the mile, sacrificing time on the road to find parking means choosing to cut one’s own pay to comply with regulations. The American Transportation Research Institute’s “Analysis of the Operational Costs of Trucking: 2016 Update,” estimated drivers lose about $4,600 per driver per year in this way, roughly 10 percent of the average driver’s annual earnings.
The ATRI study also reported 89.2 percent of drivers park illegally at least occasionally, with 36.5 percent reporting doing so at least three times a week to avoid fines or discipline from their employers. Instead, they run the risk of being ticketed, getting in an accident or being robbed.
In 2011, MDOT received a $4.48 million competitive grant from the Department of Transportation to develop a system that would take the time and guesswork out of the search for parking. The stretch of I-94 was an apt testing ground. About 10,000 trucks traverse it every day. There are five public rest stops and about a dozen private lots along the route, 10 of which agreed to take part in the project.
MDOT officials contracted engineering firm HNTB Corp. and they reached out to Mark Warner, CEO of Truck Specialized Parking Services Inc. (TSPS), to come up with a way to collect and deliver accurate, real-time parking availability information. MDOT officials also wanted the system to be easily adaptable so it could be replicated on highways everywhere.
“All of the people involved in the vision of this understood the national problem,” Warner said. “So we knew we had to get a network working first, then we had to get it moving across the country.”
Using off-the-shelf technology, they came up with a combination of cameras and magnetic sensors that could accurately monitor the parking facilities. The data is fed into TSPS’s cloud-based computing service and the results are relayed to truckers by various means, the most visible of which are variable road signs posted along the highway that show how much parking is available at the next two or three exits or rest stops along the route. The information is also available through the MDOT and TSPS websites and on various driver apps.
The data is updated every five minutes and has an accuracy rate of about 95 percent, Warner said.
While Michigan has been developing its TPIMS, Minnesota and Wisconsin have been working on systems of their own, as has Tennessee. Virginia and Maryland are collaborating on a pilot program, and California and Colorado have begun systems. In 2016, Florida’s DOT launched a statewide TPIMS across 74 public rest stops.
The MDOT system, as well its Minnesota and Wisconsin counterparts, will soon be integrated into the MAASTO Regional TPIMS. They, along with lead DOT Kansas, will be joined by Iowa, Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky on a system that will provide parking information for more than 150 parking sites along nine interstates.
Each state will develop and operate its own system, Moore explained. But the goal is to provide a seamless experience for drivers. So the states established a standard set of design criteria that ensures the individual state systems can be integrated.
“The common thread will be roadside signs across the country,” Moore said. Up-to-date parking information will also be available at a central website, trucksparkhere.com.
The project will also use a common software application programming interface, allowing the individual systems to share data with one another and with outside parties.
“We decided to do it because there are already so many applications out there that deal with travel and truck traffic,” Moore said. “We assumed the market would take the data and use it.”
The project is on schedule, Moore said, and is expected to go live the first week of January 2019.
Moore and Warner have both heard the argument, “Why don’t you just spend the money on more parking?”
Once the MAASTO project is launched, data will be collected to measure its effectiveness based on several criteria. “One of those is parking utilization,” Moore said. “We’re going to keep track of this data — we plan on using it to make the case for building more parking.”
In the meantime, TPIMS will help make the most of the parking that’s already out there. The ATRI study estimated that with nearly 400,000 daily truck parking events across the U.S., saving an average of 15 minutes per event would equate to an annual operational savings of $4.4 billion. This doesn’t include environmental impacts or increased productivity.
“It’s all related — safety, freight movement and parking,” Moore said.