ATA economist sees strong freight for years

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Expect plenty of freight in the coming years, but no relief from costly fuel or the driver shortage, a top trucking economist said May 24.

Freight has slacked a little, “but when we get back to the fall freight season, it’s going to be very tight again,” said Bob Costello, chief economist for the American Trucking Associations. He addressed about 400 industry executives at the Randall Trucking Spring Symposium in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Reports that U.S. manufacturing is dying because production is moving out of the country are misleading because they look only at jobs, Costello said. Technology gains allowed U.S. manufacturers to increase production by 60 percent during the 1990s, yet the manufacturing work force dropped 1 percent.

“U.S. manufacturers are going to continue to produce more – more to be hauled in trucks,” he said. “What they’re not going to do is create jobs.”

The Gross Domestic Product should continue growing at about 3.3 percent each year, Costello said — a steady rate that should deter the Federal Reserve from frequent interest rate changes. Combine those trends with expectations of low inflation and reduced federal spending, and GDP growth should be good for the next five years, he said.

For-hire truck tonnage grew 5.7 percent in 2004, the biggest increase since 1998, and for-hire fleets are proving to be more efficient than private fleets, Costello said. “They haul 52 percent of the tonnage with 40 percent of the trucks,” Costello said. “There’s a lot of opportunity there.”

Less-than-truckload has seen the strongest increase in freight volumes, 16.4 percent, based on year-to-date figures through March versus a year ago. Reefer is next highest, followed by flatbed.

During the same period there have been “unprecedented increases in average revenue per mile,” Costello said. Truckload revenue per mile is up 13.3 percent. LTL revenue per ton is up 7.7 percent.

“Not only is the volume doing well, but the revenue’s there, too,” he said.

The industry appears to be adding enough trucks to keep up with demand, though other factors weigh against capacity, Costello said.

After the dramatic drop in Class 8 sales during the recession, followed by the minor pre-buy surge in advance of 2002 engines, sales have risen steadily, Costello said. However, “So much of what’s going on is replacement,” Costello said. Some carriers need to replace old pre-2002 trucks, or they want to have a young fleet “to hold off as long as possible in 2007,” when the next emissions mandate takes effect.

Also working against capacity are the inability of startup carriers to quickly assume the roles played by larger carriers that failed during the recession, loss of productivity from hours-of-service changes, a tight lending market, and the lack of drivers.

Large truckload carrier turnover averaged 121 percent during 2004 and 136 percent in the fourth quarter, both record levels. Even though much of the turnover is churn within the industry, the long-term prospect for the driver pool is not good, Costello said.

Fuel costs, too, will be a long-term problem. Increasing price volatility makes predictions difficult, but Costello said forecasts of lower prices from 2007 to 2010 probably are too optimistic.

The Randall Trucking Spring Symposium is sponsored by Randall Publishing, parent company of, Overdrive, CCJ and Truckers News magazines.