ATA, Morgan raise concerns about Keystone State’s rest stop closure

The fallout from Pennsylvania’s decision to close its 65 rest stops throughout the state has drawn the attention of the American Trucking Associations (ATA) and a leading Wall Street analyst.

“ATA is aware that some states and localities are taking the well-intentioned step of closing highway rest areas in response to the growing COVID-19 threat,” the ATA said in a prepared statement released to FreightWaves. “We are in contact with the Department of Transportation – including  the Federal Highway Administration and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration – as well as with those states through our federation of state associations and urging authorities to keep these vital facilities open for truck drivers to use.”

“Rest areas and truck stops provide critical opportunities for drivers to park and rest so they can continue to safely deliver medical supplies, food and other essentials. If these facilities are unavailable to our industry, it will compromise our ability to respond to this crisis,” the statement added.

Ravi Shanker, who heads the transportation research team at Morgan Stanley, was less diplomatic in his criticism of the Pennsylvania move.  

“A functioning, safe rest stop is of paramount importance to a long-haul trucker,” Shanker wrote in a report issued Tuesday afternoon. “As the CFO of one large trucking operator told us in response to this news, ‘If America wants its Purell, toilet paper, food and alcohol delivered, our drivers need to have a place to stay, use the restroom facilities and park when they run out of driving hours.’

As today’s Outbound Tender Volume Index from FreightWaves’ SONAR market dashboard shows, the demand for trucking services has not eased in the past day or two.

No other states have been confirmed to have shut its rest stops other than Pennsylvania. However, there are reports that some states have closed bathrooms at the rest stops while continuing to allow parking. Nebraska reportedly is in that category though state officials could not be immediately reached for confirmation.

Meanwhile, the search for parking led the owner of a seven-year old loadboard company, Riteload LLC, to offer up five spots on a Facebook group for truckers. Matthew Kane, the founder and CEO of the company, has spaces on offer at an office building he is refurbishing in the Philadelphia suburb of Bucks County.

“I just wanted to try to do it during this whole nonsense of shutting parking spots down,” Kane told FreightWaves, adding he may not even be legally allowed to make the offer. “But I did it anyway,” he said.

While five spots is a drop in the bucket, the offer on the Facebook group Rates & Lanes set off a chorus of praise. “God bless you and your company, a role model for the industry” was one post that pretty much summed up the sentiment. 

The building being renovated has no bathroom facilities at this point, Kane said. But he has leased portable toilets for the site. 

Shanker referred to a broader unease – that the Pennsylvania restrictions are just one roadblock that truckers are encountering even as the demand for their services continues to rise. 

“Even if this decision is reversed and the Pennsylvania rest stops are open, truckers across the country have been reporting disruptions to their operations due to emergencies and other restrictions,” he said.

And there have been various unconfirmed reports from truckers of problems that appear to be linked to the coronavirus, including shippers not having the staff to take deliveries. Whether that’s occurring at vital locations like supermarkets is not known. But as Shenker said, “we do not see other transportation modes practicably stepping in to fill any disruption in long-haul trucking given the size of the trucking market relative to other modes as well as its speed and efficiency, which will be paramount in the current environment.”

Meanwhile, the National Association of Truckstop Operators released a letter it received Tuesday from Jim Mullen, the acting administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA). 

In the letter, Mullen said that FMCSA “recognizes the integral role that travel centers and truckstops play in the Nation’s supply chain.” And it said in the “coming weeks and months, it will be critical that these businesses remain open, 24 hours per day, providing America’s truck drivers with fuel, food, showers, repair services, and opportunities to rest.”

It added that it was welcome to request from NATSO members on how FMCSA could be “helpful.”