Rachael Goldman was quickly reminded July 3 of the Midwest humidity she grew up with as she and her daughter exited their car at the eastbound Interstate 80 rest area near Davenport.
En route from Denver to Worcester, Massachusetts, for 18-year-old Tayla Goldman to return to college for a summer class, the pair enjoyed a break from the road as they sat at a picnic table under a shade tree.
"It's definitely a long drive," said Rachael Goldman, a Nebraska native, who began the morning in Omaha and planned to end the day at the next overnight stop near Gary, Indiana. "You need a place to stop and stretch your legs."
But under a draft plan being proposed by the Iowa Department of Transportation, or I-DOT, this particular rest area — the last for travelers exiting eastern Iowa — would close within the next five years. It is one of 11 of the state's 37 rest areas identified to shut down, along with all 16 parking-only rest areas, over the next three decades.
The Iowa Rest Area Management Plan is receiving mixed reviews from the trucking industry, transportation advocates and others considering the implications of losing nearly a third of Iowa's full service rest areas.
Andrea Henry, Iowa-DOT's strategic communications director, said the management plan is about asset management. "It is our responsibility to make sure we balance the needs and wants of the traveling public with the amount of dollars available ...," she said. "The transportation system has changed quite a bit since we built the rest area system."
She stressed the plan "is just a proposal we're putting out for public comment." A final plan, which might not come until 2020, would take the public's input into account along with the data already gathered, Henry said. The closure list was developed based on various criteria including the facility's age, condition, usage, services and its proximity to another rest area or commercial truck stops.
"As they need a significant amount of investment, we are taking them off the system (under the plan)," she said of the aging rest areas.
The Davenport eastbound rest area is the only full-service facility recommended to close in the near-term — the next one to five years. It also is the only Quad-City region rest area on the list. But the 16 parking-only areas slated to close include eastbound and westbound I-80 stops at nearby Wilton, Iowa. The majority of the parking-only areas are slated to close within five years, while nine rest areas could close within 15 years if the plan is implemented.
The proposed closings could save the department $25 million over 15 years and more than $30 million in 20 years, the plan determined.
Driver safety concerns
The proposal has some in the trucking industry worried about driver safety.
"Our No. 1 concern is that everybody gets to go home at night," said Carol Millam, safety director for Amhof Trucking in Eldridge. "What a tremendous blow this is for any of our drivers who are out trying to maneuver the highways in a safe and reasonable fashion."
The industry, which is facing a severe driver shortage, "is so heavily regulated that it is so hard for these drivers to find an area to rest," she said. "People think (truckers) can just keep going. You can't."
Millam said under federal regulations, a driver can only drive 11 hours in a day and, at times, must end their day before hitting 11 hours to be ensure having somewhere to pull over. "A lot of truckers will stop at 5 or 6 at night just to find a place to park."
"The trucker shortage is nothing compared to (a shortage of) where they can pull over and park," she added.
Brenda Neville, president of Iowa Motor Truck Association, an industry trade group representing nearly 700 trucking companies and suppliers across Iowa, said the association is not taking an official position but also is concerned about the availability of truck parking.
"When you see trucks at the rest areas and they're overflowing out onto the interstate, that's compromising safety," she said. Nationwide, truck parking has risen into the Top 5 concerns now for the industry, she added.
"As states are facing budget issues, rest areas always seem to be on the chopping blocks," Neville said.
Neville is comforted by the fact that I-DOT is taking a long and short view of the rest area issue and that the plan is "not a knee-jerk reaction." "We have confidence the DOT will do its best, we believe they are listening to us," she added.
The truck association also counts many Iowa truck stops as its members. She said there are discussions whether "there is something we can do to enhance what they're doing" to address the parking issues.
According to Henry, the state's rest areas were built in the 1960s when "there wasn't as much private industry that now has popped up along the interstate."
A changing world
Regulations also have changed. In the 1960s, the federal government required states located rest areas every half hour along the interstate. Today, she said Iowa requires that every hour there be either a state-owned facility or an alternative, such as a truck stop. In addition, Henry said vehicles since have gotten more reliable, faster and can drive longer than they did then before filling up.
Delia Moon Meier, senior vice president of the Iowa 80 Group, owner of the sprawling Iowa 80 Truckstop at Walcott, said it makes sense for the state to look at its rest area operations versus its resources. "I think the idea (for rest areas) was formed when there was no business along the interstate. Now there are 14 choices within two miles (of I-80 Truckstop)."
Meanwhile, she said the state has other projects looming such as expanding I-80 to three lanes. "I hope people realize there is a finite amount of money."
"Should they spend $3 million to $4 million on a new rest area or close it and send (drivers) to private business, which helps the economy," Meier said. "Right around me thousands stop here every day to go to the bathroom and don't buy anything and that's fine. We've got room for more."
The Iowa 80 Truckstop just added 112 new truck parking spots as part of a truckstop's $10 million expansion and renovation. In addition, it has parking for 230 cars.
"There are lots of areas where there is a shortage of parking, but I know that we have parking every night that is available," she said.
Meier said closing the parking-only areas also makes financial sense. She said the state converted the old weigh stations into parking-only stops, but they only provide about eight spaces each for trucks, she said.
According to Henry, the draft plan is being proposed as other initiatives are being studied related to truck parking. Iowa and other states across the I-80 corridor are considering creating a dynamic truck parking facility, which would provide alerts to truckers. "If they only have two hours of service left, it would alert them to where they should pull over," she said adding the details are still to be worked out.
The AAA motor club believes there still is a strong need for rest areas.
"Motorists do need places they can take rest breaks if not for physically resting or sleeping ... but even just a safe place to use their cellphones so they're not tempted to do that as they're driving," said Nick Jarmusz, AAA's public affairs director.
He said AAA has seen other states closing down rest areas, in part, due to urban sprawl or because of a duplication of services with nearby truck stops.
"As long as the human is responsible for piloting the vehicle, they are going to need to have a place to stop and break every hour to take a rest," said Jarmusz, who had not yet seen the full Iowa draft report.
"I've had as many four-wheelers (automobile drivers) call us," Neville said. "They fear not having places to stop."
The Quad-Cities Convention & Visitors Bureau, which once relied heavily on the rest areas as a place to distribute local tourism information, now stocks a only a limited number of tourist guides in rest areas across the state.
"Where we really see (the guides) flying out is the I-80 truck stop," said Lynn Hunt, the bureau's interim president and CEO. She said there is no local tourism information at the Davenport rest areas.
"For the tourist on the road, they are going to stop where they can get something to eat, get gas and use the bathroom," she said.
Hunt said the bureau now meets most of its visitors in person at the Quad-Cities' points of entry including its downtown visitor centers in LeClaire, Davenport, Moline and Rock Island and the Quad-City International Airport.
"I don't see an impact on visitors," she said of the proposed closings. "They'll be fine. They've got their cellphones."