Local truckers look for stimulus help

Reports that a big chunk of the federal stimulus package is ticketed for construction projects should be good news for the trucking industry.

But local trucking businesses say they have yet to turn up much in the way of stimulus.

"We haven't seen an uptick yet," said Mike Card, president of Combined Transport Inc.

An American Trucking Associations report released last week found March loads fell 25 percent from March 2008 and 1.4 percent from February, hitting the lowest level in 10 years.

"We're not that bad, but we're off considerably," Card said. "The first quarter was bad and April and May look bad so far."

There have been no signs of recovery.

"Flatbed and heavy, haul trucking is a leading indicator," Card said. "Because people need equipment to start projects. If you are doing bridge or road construction, you are out finding scrapers because you got rid of them or parked them."

Road-building has held out a glimmer of hope for the sector.

"It starts with heavy equipment — yellow iron (Caterpillar) road equipment, earth-movers and things like that," Card said. "There have been a few bridges, so that means more steel. There have been people talking about it, but there's been nothing concrete."

Across the board, from van haulers to refrigerated trucks and tankers to flatbeds, the industry has muddled along.

"This has been the worst year for most of us since the early 1980s," Card said. "I haven't heard of anybody going bankrupt, in this region or the state; but that's probably because of lower fuel prices. Fuel prices are more indicators than the economy in general for trucking companies' financial health."

Indeed, fuel prices have shot back up in recent weeks, although the pump price for automobile fuel is now more expensive than diesel for trucks.

"If fuel prices go up, in this (economic) environment and we're not able to pass on those costs and have more revenues and more asset utilization, we'll really be hurting."

Card said his company has maintained its 325-truck fleet and kept its drivers on the payroll, although both rigs and employees have seen less activity.

"Our loads and miles per truck are down," Card said. "We could park more trucks and that might make it better because of higher revenue per truck. It might be more efficient, but that's not the way we work."

He said the market for both new and used trucks is far off historical levels, with new truck sales down 44 percent.

"Nobody is buying, new or used," Card said.

Some companies have trimmed wages, but that's been the exception, he said.

"We've managed to hold our driver force about the same," Card said. "We have very experienced drivers and we'd hate to lose them."

While work for the big rigs has hit a slump, some in the logging truck business have seen activity fall off even more dramatically. With no demand for building materials, there's no demand for trucks to haul raw materials — in this case, logs.

"In the forest products industry, trucking is off 40 to 60 or 70 percent," said Mark Gibson, president of Siskiyou Transportation. "For some people, it's off 100 percent."

Gibson, who has served on a variety of state and national trucking boards, said his operation was virtually idle for nearly six months.

"We just started hauling in May for the first time," Gibson said. "There are some construction and government projects going on, but we haven't seen a huge pick-up."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 776-4463 or e-mail business@mailtribune.com.

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