Nov 20, 2023 - Business

Truck drivers are parking wherever they can make a spot in Charlotte

Photo: Alexandria Sands/Axios

In 2021, Vindal Ogletree swerved his SUV to avoid a car crash on U.S. 21 in Charlotte. Instead, he slammed into the back of a trailer that was parked on the shoulder. His airbags deployed, his car burst into flames and he was hospitalized.

The trailer shouldn’t have been there. It’s illegal to park a semi-truck on the side of an interstate in North Carolina. But Ogletree gets why it was there. He’s been a truck driver himself for 20 years and knows how drivers struggle to find places to park.

  • He’s parked on the side of the highway in the past, but not anymore.
  • “You got to try and find where you can make parking,” he says. “It’s hard out here.”

Why it matters: City leaders want to crack down on unsafe and unattractive semi-truck parking along Charlotte roads. But demand for truck parking exceeds capacity, according to a statewide study. With too few options, drivers are parking along ramps, in on-street spaces and outside residential neighborhoods.

  • The national truck parking shortage makes it difficult to recruit and retain drivers, especially women. This affects the whole economy.

“We recognize the needs of the truck drivers and the commercial vehicle drivers, but we have to consider the residents’ safety first,” says Renee Johnson, the council representative for the University City area.

  • In July, three people were killed and 14 injured when a Greyhound bus crashed into three tractor-trailers parked along an Illinois highway exit. Earlier this month, three children died and one was hospitalized after a pickup truck collided with a tractor-trailer on a Georgia ramp.

“It makes our community look terrible,” resident Antoinette Mingo says. “But even more than that, we don’t want an accident to happen, and somebody is killed and a family is impacted, before something is done.”

Flashback: In the ’80s, the government loosened its control over trucking through the Federal Motor Carrier Act. The deregulation, coupled with the expansion of roads over the last several decades, is what grew this country’s dependence on trucks. Roughly 73% of the nation’s freight moves by truck, according to American Trucking Associations.

  • In recent years new federal trucking regulations have gone into effect. Trucks now have electronic devices that track time, and drivers can only stay on the road for a certain number of hours. The new laws, aimed at improving road safety, led to soaring demand for overnight parking.

Drivers today find themselves with two choices:

  • Stop their clock early if they find a safe, legal place to park. But they might be cutting their pay short and not getting the haul closer to its destination.
  • Keep going, hope to find a spot but ultimately risk driving over the allowable hours, which can be a safety and legal issue.

“Imagine you’re driving to the beach in the middle of the night. You get to that stretch where there’s not a lot of gas stations,” says Ben Greenberg, president and CEO of the North Carolina Trucking Association. “Then you see the gas light come on, but you’ve got 60 or 70 miles left. You feel that sense of panic.

  • “That’s something that a professional driver could feel on a daily basis.”

What he’s saying: Ogletree has been towed from various places. He says truck stops are so crowded that drivers are blocking each other. At dawn, they knock on each other’s doors, waking each other up to shuffle around vehicles.

  • One time, he says, an officer ordered him to leave a ramp while he was on a federally required break. As he was moving the truck, another officer stopped him and checked his electronic logging device. He was then in violation.
  • “You’re in a no-win situation,” Ogletree says.

Zoom out: The lack of truck parking is a national problem. There’s only one spot for every 11 truck drivers on the road.

Zoom in: Mecklenburg County, where I-85 and I-77 converge, is one of the busiest places in the country for truck parking.

  • It’s particularly bad in the University City area, city leaders say.

What’s happening: City of Charlotte code enforcement and the Charlotte Department of Transportation have been leaving educational windshield flyers on illegally parked semi-trucks. Last week, the city raised parking fines from $25 to $100 — the highest in the state.

  • “That’s a deterrent, if it’s enforced,” Mingo says. For some drivers, $100 is the cost of doing business.
  • NCDOT put up warning signs along an I-485 ramp to North Tryon Street. They have a financial interest, too, since the weight of the parked trucks damages taxpayer-funded infrastructure.
  • But now drivers who see the signs just park around the corner, along Tryon.

So, who is enforcing the law? The city’s newly formed Quality-of-Life Team identified truck parking and litter as the first issues it wants to tackle.

  • It’s unclear how heavily the State Highway Patrol is enforcing the law on interstates.
  • “The folks that are enforcing that understand the legal dynamic that a driver’s in,” Greenberg says. “They’ve got a federally mandated maximum amount of time that they could drive, but they don’t have a federally guaranteed safe place to park.”
  • Some suggest booting, towing or even impounding might be the only way to get drivers to stop parking in certain places. But that adversely impacts their livelihood, and it doesn’t solve the parking shortage.

Between the lines: One possible solution is opening up rest areas and weigh stations for parking.

  • But NCDOT doesn’t have any plans to do that. Rest areas are neither designed nor staffed for overnight stays, an NCDOT spokesperson tells Axios.
  • One bill in Congress, the Truck Parking Safety Improvement Act, would allocate more than $750 million for commercial public parking, including transitioning rest areas and weigh stations.

Of note: There are private trucking facilities as well, but opening those is difficult, given that industrial zoning is harder to come by in Charlotte.

  • UPTime Truck Parking has 800 spaces across its locations it leases out on a daily, weekly and monthly basis.
  • “With us going into the Christmas season with Amazon, we’re 95% full,” says general manager Jack Conlan. UpTime opened a new facility in October off I-485 and Albemarle Road with 100 spaces.
  • Developers are finding they can temporarily use vacant land for truck parking, too. Flywheel Group, for example, leases land on North Tryon that will eventually be part of the massive development called Queens Park Commons.

What’s next: Council members — particularly Johnson, LaWana Mayfield and Malcolm Graham — are urgently pushing for enforcement against illegal truck parking.

  • The city could set a fine higher than $100. But staff last week warned elected leaders not to overreach by doing so. The state could force them to reel in the fine.
  • Charlotte mayor pro tem Braxton Winston said during the meeting that the city should consult other cities, governments and businesses to come up with effective solutions. “We should be leaders on the national level.”
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