Article by: Martin E. Comas

For the full story visit: Orlando Sentinel

Keith Mullin felt lucky he found a space to park his truck Oct. 6 at an Interstate 4 rest area in Longwood, Fla., after a 20-hour trip from central Wisconsin.

Truck spaces at rest areas — including the 17 at the congested rest stop on eastbound I-4 about two miles north of State Road 434 — fill up fast. That often forces tired drivers to either keep driving or park illegally on the highway’s shoulder near the rest area that people who live close by would like to see closed.

Now, the Florida Department of Transportation plans to help commercial drivers with a new technology that detects empty spaces at rest areas and weigh stations and alerts them through message boards and websites.

“Basically you have X number of truck spaces,” transportation department spokesman Steve Olson said. “So this is to utilize them efficiently by using technology.”

With the growing number of big rigs on I-4 and other interstate highways, truckers are finding it increasingly difficult to stop and rest as required by federal laws.

But Mullin isn’t convinced the high-tech system will do much good.

“I think it will help somewhat, but it’s not the answer,” Mullin, 53, said as he walked across the parking lot at the eastbound I-4 rest area. “Expanding rest stops and having more spaces would help a lot more.”

State transportation officials acknowledge the area needs more places for truckers to rest, as a growing economy and more people shopping online requires additional trucks. But building new rest areas or expanding current ones is not easy.

For years, nearby Seminole residents have pressed transportation officials to move or shutter the I-4 rest areas, saying the burgeoning number of parked trucks create noise and air pollution.

State officials ditched plans last year to relocate the Seminole rest areas to Volusia County near the State Road 44 and I-4 interchange after Volusia leaders strongly objected, saying they would rather see high-end industries rather than trucks in that area.

Olson said the agency has no plans to expand the Longwood rest stop, and it likely will stay open “for the foreseeable future.”

“You need to find land that’s suitable,” he said. “You also need to get the local governments to support it. And then there are the capital costs and acquisition costs. It’s not something that can happen overnight.”

So for now, the state plans to rely on the new $1.8-million truck parking availability system at the Seminole rest stop and six others along Interstate 95 in Brevard and Flagler counties.

Work crews this month will begin planting underground sensors shaped like hockey pucks at each truck space, along with detection devices at the entrances and exits of rest stops and weigh stations to monitor the number of available parking spaces.

The electronic sensors will relay the information to the state’s web site, mobile apps and message boards along I-4 and I-95, showing truckers down the road how many empty spaces are available. The system should be running by spring.

“I think it can be good,” trucker John Lewis of Cookeville, Tenn., said as he prepared to climb into the driver’s seat of his tractor-trailer at the Seminole I-4 rest stop and head to Jacksonville and then Louisiana.

“When you’re tired, you need to stop driving,” said Lewis, 62. “But if you pull into some rest stops, you can’t get a space so you have to park along the side of the road or somewhere there isn’t a space and then you get blocked in.”

Mullin called it “a Catch-22” situation.

“They require you to stop to rest” after 10 hours of driving, he said. “But there’s very few places to stop.”