WALCOTT, Iowa - Truck drivers crossing Iowa's interstates will soon be able to find a parking spot for their big rigs.
Known as Trucks Park Here, a high-tech system by the Iowa Department of Transportation will gather real-time data collected at dozens of state-run rest areas and private truck stops to alert commercial drivers to parking spaces available along Interstate 80 and portions of I-380, I-35 and I-29.
Parking information can be accessed through a parking information link at www.trucksparkhere.com, but only Ohio and Minnesota's data feeds are live. By the end of January, IDOT will have its data available on the state's traveler information sites and mobile apps at www.511ia.org.
Once up and running, the sites will have parking maps indicating whether a particular site has parking available, low availability or if the site is closed.
The program is part of a larger Truck Parking Information Management System, or TPIMS, partnership between Iowa and seven other Midwest states: Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin.
"Safety is the primary concern," said Phil Mescher, team leader with IDOT's Office of Systems Planning. The new system began collecting data Jan. 4.
Mescher told Quad-City Times that the other partners have begun sharing available parking information on digital message boards, but the IDOT chose a more technology-based approach. "We are focusing on making the data available so it could be utilized by smartphone applications and in-cab systems."
He said third-party app developers and others vendors already are developing tools for drivers and more companies have requested access to the data feeds since the system launched.
In the trucking industry, finding available and safe parking is a growing concern, Mescher said. "You want truck drivers to get adequate rest and you don't want unsafe parking situations."
According to the IDOT, a survey found 83 percent of drivers spend more than 30 minutes searching for parking. If drivers' hours of service are almost up, they need to know where parking is available ahead.
"We have issues where there are not always the safest choices where trucks decide to park," he said.
In fact, he said the TPIMS effort was launched three years ago by eight of 10 states in the Mid America Association of State Transportation Officials after national legislation was enacted to address trucker safety and security. Known as Jason's Law, the 2012 legislation is named for Jason Rivenburg, a commercial truck driver who was killed on the job. Rivenburg was driving in South Carolina in 2009 when he was unable to find a rest area or truck stop and parked his truck at an abandoned gas station, where he was robbed and murdered.
The tragedy convinced Congress of the importance of the issue, which led to federal funding, Mescher said.
Trucks Park Here was funded in part through a $25 million Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER, grant. Iowa, which received $3.3 million from the federal grant, contributed almost $500,000 toward the project.
Brenda Neville, the president and CEO of Iowa Motor Truck Association, said the association's members continue to voice their concerns about the shortage of truck parking.
Part of the issue, she said, is how federal rules governing service hours now are written. "Those regulations, in our opinion, were a step backward because now you have all the trucks taking breaks at the same time, pulling over at the same time."
She anticipates the industry will see rule changes on the federal level to "allow more flexibility in hours of service." ''Right now, as soon as a driver logs in, he has a certain amount of hours he can stay driving and has to take two breaks."
Delia Moon Meier, senior vice president of the Iowa 80 Group and owner of the sprawling Iowa 80 Truckstop, said there is no shortage of parking at the Walcott truck stop. With 900 truck parking spaces, she said it is rare the facility is at capacity unless weather renders driving conditions unsafe.
But she too hears the concerns from drivers and believes the new technology will be useful. She compared it to other existing apps, such as Park My Truck.
"When their hours run out, their hours run out and they have to pull over right away," Meier said. "If they've not planned well or there has been an accident and they got stuck a couple of hours, all of a sudden they are in an area they didn't plan to be. A lot of things happen along the way — not necessarily to them. But if they are only allowed to be on (the road) eight hours, when their time is up they have to park their truck."
Trucks Park Here will collect real-time data using a variety of in-pavement and parking lot entrance/exit sensors, Mescher said.
At the state's rest areas, crews installed two magnetometer pucks in all the truck parking stalls to detect the presence of a vehicle. The number of vacant truck parking stalls is calculated and that information is sent through a transponder to a centralized software program that creates a standard format data feed available on the Trucks Park Here website.
That same data will be used by the third-party vendors of traveler information 511 websites, smart-phone apps and in-cab information systems.
At private truck stop locations, such as the Walcott truck stop, cameras with video analytics have been installed to count trucks entering and exiting truck parking areas. Other cameras on site will provide system validation.
Iowa DOT contracted with Omaha-based eX? Technology to deploy its system and install the equipment and Truck Specialized Parking Services provided the software services.
When Iowa's system is complete, it will collect data from 44 sites including public rest areas, weigh stations, private truck stops and other businesses. The Iowa 80 Truckstop is among the participating sites. Others include Prairie Meadows Racetrack and Casino, Kum & Go stores, Casey's General Stores and others.