San Diego Long-haul, big-rig truck drivers who flow into San Diego consider the area one of the least friendly in the country, mainly because of the absence of full-service truck stops.
Not long ago Dan and Terry Hopkins, a husband-and-wife driving team from Tennessee hauling a cargo of vegetables, were washing up at a McDonald's off the 905 in Otay. "They need a truck stop really bad here," said Dan. "Drivers with produce are sometimes laid over here a couple of days. When you have your wife with you, you want a place to eat and park your truck safely, to take a shower and clean your clothes, stuff like that. It makes it so you don't want to deliver because you don't know if you're okay or if your property's okay. Why would you want to go there?"
This was the first time the Hopkinses had visited San Diego. Dan explained he worked as a driver because he enjoyed the travel and meeting different people across the country. "But since I found out there's no truck stop here, I won't come back. All the major cities have somewhere for truckers to go, and I was shocked this place didn't."
People in the trucking industry and Teamsters Union say that many streets in the city and county of San Diego are off limits to truckers who want to park and rest. Some cities go even farther. Santee bars big rigs from entering town unless they can prove they're making a delivery.
Many drivers park north of Oceanside, off I-5, at the Aliso Creek rest area, one of only two highway rest stops in San Diego County. (The other is in Buckman Springs, off I-8.)
On a recent weekday late afternoon, several drivers talked about the problem. One said the lack of truck stops in San Diego was a hot topic on trucker CBs. "We all think they don't want us here," he added.
Some of the drivers that congregate at the Aliso Creek rest area are from Mexico, driving refrigerated trucks (known as "reefers") full of fruit and vegetables bound for the produce market in Los Angeles. They must cross the border by late afternoon, when U.S. Customs ends the truck inspections, but the produce market does not open until midnight. Most drivers are unwilling to park and wait on the crime-ridden streets near the market, so they spend the evening at Aliso Creek (the rest stops maintain an eight-hour limit). About 60 percent of the trucks coming over daily from Mexico are reefers -- around l500 per day during the growing seasons. Most are bound for Los Angeles.
There were no reefers at Aliso Creek this particular day, but one driver said when there are, the truck parking area is filled early, and late-arriving drivers must head north one exit to Las Pulgas Road and park off the street near the freeway.
Joe Erhart, who says he "lived in his truck," a flatbed, and hit San Diego a dozen times a year, explained what a full-service, 24-hour truck stop had: diesel fuel pumps, of course; always-available truck mechanics; ATMs and other money-transfer facilities; showers; enough space to park; hot meals; and often a TV or game room.
"I don't know who's keeping truck stops out of this area." He says that in years past, many of the stops were "virtual whorehouses, with hard drugs and pornography, where a Christian driver couldn't get out of his truck to go to the bathroom. He'd rather pee in a jug." But now, he says, most of the big truck-stop companies have fenced in their property and run clean operations.
Some truck stops are state of the art. Erhart tells of one in Knoxville where a driver can order from Taco Bell while fueling, and when he's ready to pay, his food order is waiting for him. In Arizona, another stop has smoking and non-smoking lounges, with large-screen TVs. Some of the truck stops are so pleasant that RVs are now crowding into them, which, Erhart states, is causing "a lot of resentment among truckers."
Erhart will settle for a lot less in San Diego. "I'd drive 25 miles out of my way to take a shower. Now I have to go l00 miles for that." He's referring to one of a dozen full-service truck stops that line the I-10 corridor in Riverside and eastern Los Angeles County.
Around 12,000 Teamsters reside in San Diego, half of them drivers, according to Ken Lundgren, a board member of a San Diego local. Among the items Lundgren lobbies state and local officials for is a full-service truck stop and more rest areas where trucks can park. He thinks La Mesa would be ideal for a truck stop, situated to service both north-south and east-west traffic.
Lundgren says that he's "heard through the grapevine" that officials in the city and county are cool to the idea of truck stops. "No one wants to see acres of trucks in their area. Nobody wants it in their backyards. Everyone wants the stuff that trucks bring, but nobody wants to see the truck that delivers it."
Armando Freire owns a trucking company near the Mexican border. He's also the San Diego chairman of the California Trucking Association. He believes he knows the main reason San Diego lags behind other metropolises in services to truckers.
"The cities feel that anything that has to do with trucks is money wasted. A shopping center gets sales taxes, property taxes. But a truck stop, or whatever, is an undeveloped piece of land with few revenues." He also lobbies for a truck stop but says, "It's a battle. It's not favorable to trucks at this point, even though there's a definite need for it." The centrally located Old Town area, near Perry's Cafe off Pacific Highway, is his choice for a truck-stop location. Perry's, because of its large parking lot, draws a fair number of hungry truckers.
Freire says he is working with Caltrans to double the number of rest areas in San Diego; he has hopes of getting one built in the Otay area and another in Mission Valley.
Ralph Carhart, the Sacramento-based Caltrans rest-area coordinator, agrees that long-haul drivers need more places to stop, rest, and clean up. To that end, he works with the trucking industry, other state agencies, and concerned citizens, like the national group Parents Against Tired Truckers.
"Some local areas don't want [truck stops], whether for land- use reasons or other issues. And the private sector doesn't seem to be able to provide enough truck stops." Carhart sees an increase in highway rest areas as a partial solution but acknowledges there is a problem with building more of them. In the l980s, the state government cut back on funding for rest areas, in the hope that private enterprise would build them in return for on-site concession rights, such as pay showers and mini-marts.
But, says Carhart, "We have not been able to find private investors." One obstacle: the state's Department of Rehabilitation, which provides services to the blind, already operates the vending machines in the rest areas, which Carhart describes as "a very profitable monopoly."
Michael Morgan is a former chairman of the local trucking association. He also owns a trucking firm in Point Loma. "If you look at [local government's] approach to trucking, it's more, 'We want to get rid of them. We don't want to work with them. We just want to put laws and regulations in place to restrict them.' People see these big rigs on the road, but they don't see the contents of them. So when they walk into a grocery store to shop, it's like magic, how all that stuff got there."
Morgan once tried to organize a two-day strike by the state's trucking industry to educate the public about the importance of trucks, which he claims is directly or indirectly responsible for 1 in 13 jobs. "Trucking's an emotional issue. People don't remember the Yugo that cut them off this morning, but they'll remember the Surburban, because it's big enough. Now, when you got a tractor-trailer in front of you, and you're traveling down the road, people get this emotional frustration."
Once, after finishing a talk on a trucking issue to a group of politicians at a San Diego Association of Governments meeting, "one of the first things out of their mouths -- from one of the mayors -- was, 'I just drove in from North County, and why, there was a truck in front of me, and I got really frustrated.' And everyone around the table had these little comments to make about truckers and trucks that had frustrated them. It's been an emotional, not a practical, issue."
Politicians, he notes, react to the concerns of their constituents, who do not want truck stops or truck terminals in their neighborhoods. He also thinks the city and county have a "tourist orientation," not one of trade and commerce. This attitude allows Los Angeles to take trade and jobs from local trucking concerns. "That's why San Diego is a doormat."
Eighty-five percent of big-rig traffic comes in and out of San Diego through I-5 and 15; only 15 percent through I-8, Morgan says. He thinks the best location for a truck stop would be on I-5, just north of Oceanside, near the Coaster station.
Despite this, a few years ago he and a group of local truck firms looked into the possibility of building a full-service truck stop in Otay. (There are diesel stations in the South Bay that call themselves truck stops, but they're not full-service.) Morgan's group backed off when they discovered that just getting past the permits and environmental studies would cost about $50,000 per acre.
According to Armando Freire, in the past five or six years, four plans or serious inquiries have been made for full-service truck stops in the Otay area. None has come to fruition, although a few did reach Caltrans, which reviews all projects that could affect public thoroughfares. Other industry sources say there was once a proposal to build a truck stop in North County, off 15. Last year the Campo Band of Mission Indians announced, and then dropped, the idea of building a truck stop in the mountains off I-8. This venture would have had a small casino attached to it.
Now another attempt to build a facility in Otay has surfaced, according to Caltrans and the County of San Diego. A permit to build was applied for in November of 1998 and is currently under what the county terms a "discretionary review process."
Bill Stocks, a project manager for the county's Planning and Land Use Department, says that the truck stop would be located on the corner of Enrico Fermi and Airway Roads, off 905. It would cover more than 47 acres and include diesel fuel pumps, truck-repair facilities, and truck-storage areas, plus showers, a mini-mart, restaurant, and a hotel.
The federal government will be funding the extension and improvement of the 905, and so, says Stocks, the county "is trying to move quickly on it" to get final approval. If there are no appeals, he says, construction can begin sometime this year. But, he points out, "there is always a chance for an appeal," though he declines to say who might want to appeal or why.
The company that holds the permit, Bennett Consolidated of Los Angeles, did not return phone calls, and the owner of the local engineering company that would do the construction work said only that he could not release any information at this time.