The seasonally adjusted truck tonnage index decreased 4.3 percent in January and trucking industry officials know why: one of the most brutal winters anyone can recall.
"It's not the worst I've seen it, but one of the worst," said Jim Germak, owner of Jagtrux Inc. in Marietta, who has been in the freight business for 45 years. "I did a calculation at our terminal, and every time it snows, it costs us $5,000."
This winter has seen Central Pennsylvania pounded with repeated snow and ice, accompanied by below-normal temperatures. As a result, shipments have been delayed, trucks parked, and the driving time slowed by dangerous roads.
The American Trucking Association has been calculating the tonnage index based on surveys from its membership since the 1970s. The organization said trucking serves as a barometer of the U.S. economy, representing 68.5 percent of tonnage carried by all modes of domestic freight transportation, including manufactured and retail goods. Trucks hauled 9.4 billion tons of freight in 2012.
When bad weather strikes, it isn't just the obvious delays that cost money, said Germak, whose Jagtrux fleet includes 40 trucks. It's often the nickel-and-dime costs that add up to big losses.
"One of the big things is removing snow off the tops of the trailers. We don't have a $20,000 device for removing snow," Germak said.
Instead, Jagtrux employees drag scaffolding out and climb on top of each trailer, spending hours knocking off the snow. Otherwise, drivers face fines for not clearing their equipment.
"There's guys who would normally be productive in the shop and now they're out there shoveling snow off the tops of trailers," Germak said.
At H.F. Campbell and Son in Greenwood Township, Perry County, drivers haul temperature-controlled goods, which presents "an additional challenge," said Frank Campbell, company vice president.
"A lot of the products we're carrying need to be kept warm," he said. "Whenever the temperature gets down to the single digits, we're still trying to keep bananas at 60 or 62 degrees."
Campbell has a fleet of 37 trucks, plus eight independent contractors. The company tries various methods to combat the cold, such as preheating trailers, raising the temperature settings and keeping the trucks idling while stopped.
"The added costs come whenever we have to reschedule loads. It slows everything down," Campbell said. "What you should be able to do in five days may take you six days or whatever."
And once orders fall behind, it is difficult for truckers to catch up, said ATA chief economist Bob Costello.
"Drivers are governed by hours-of-service regulations and trucks are limited to trailer lengths and total weights, thus it is nearly impossible to recoup the days lost due to bad storms," he said in a news release.
Truck drivers are limited to 70 road hours a week, a rule change from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration that went into effect in July 2013.
Carl DeFebo, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Turnpike, said the state has closed the interstates and restricted speed limits more often than normal this winter.
"If you have to sit there until the ice is cleared, however long that is, that affects the hours of service the driver has," said Jim Runk, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association.
Often, companies from warmer climates underestimate the power weather has over the freight chain, Runk added.
"You may have a shipper from out of the area who says, 'There's no snow here.' But he's got to understand that it's not that way everywhere," he said.
To make matters worse for bus and truck owners, the state's transportation funding tax kicked in Jan. 1, raising diesel prices by 12.9 cents per gallon.
"The biggest issue we're having right now is the price of fuel," Germak said. "We're buying fuel in South Carolina for $3.50 a gallon and we're paying $4.50 here in PA." <