Despite two disruptive snowstorms in two weeks, the local trucking industry seems to be driving down the road to recovery. Business is up from a year ago, new and used truck purchases are up, and companies are even doing some hiring.
Some local trucking companies say business is up enough that they've been able to raise rates and add drivers. But others complain that while business is up, rising fuel prices and other costs are threatening the benefit.
Tonnage hauled by the nation's trucks fell 20 percent in 2009, according to the American Trucking Associations. It has taken a toll on truckers big and small. The recession forced a lot of trucks off the road, many permanently.
Trucking employment fell 17 percent, and the number of trucking operations tracked by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics dropped 8 percent from the start of the recession in 2007 to 2010.
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Harry Williams of Valley Center drove his own truck for decades but couldn't cope with skyrocketing fuel costs in 2008 and plunging business in 2009. He decided to retire.
"This is the worst I've ever seen in 50 years of driving," he said.
In 2010, trucking benefited strongly from the rebound in manufacturing, growing about 5 to 6 percent, twice the national growth rate. And lately, retailers have also seen growth as consumers have started buying again.
"Early this year has been tough to gauge because of the winter storms, so I don't know what to expect," said Bob Costello, chief economist of the American Trucking Associations.
"But, in a general sense, we're doing better. The economy is expected to grow 3 percent, and we think trucking will do about the same."
Some hiring ahead
M. Bruenger Trucking of Wichita mainly owns refrigerated trucks. Hauling meat from processing plants to grocery chain warehouses is one of its main businesses.
The company dropped from nearly 160 contract and company-owned trucks in 2008 to less than 150 in early 2010. As the trucks parked by the recession have gotten busy, president Butch Bruenger has added a few drivers.
He expects that to continue. Bruenger expects to hire two or three new drivers and the same number of owner-operators in the next few months.
"We're having trouble keeping up," he said. "There are lots of loads we can't handle. I can't tell if there are fewer trucks or business is that much better."
Bruenger said he has seen several positive signs in recent months. He recently was able to raise rates, after having to drop them in the recession to fight for business. And he felt the mood among businesses improve with the agreement to retain the Bush tax cuts.
"The federal tax cuts are a big deal," he said. "If they don't take my money, I would spend it on equipment, I promise."
11 new trucks
Tim Schwab, owner of Tim R. Schwab Trucking of Sedgwick, said he is about to spend $1.4 million on 11 new Kenworth trucks — more than half his fleet — to help him compete in the future.
During the recession he ran his trucks long past the time he would trade them in for new ones. Some now have a million miles on them, he said.
But with business picking up, his trucks ready for the junkyard and, crucially, the price of diesel rising about $1 a gallon from the summer, he is ready to spend for new trucks.
The new, more fuel-efficient trucks will lower his operating cost, he said. He could save more than half a million dollars a year simply by increasing mileage by 2 miles a gallon, he said.
That is his way of competing in an environment in which he still can't raise rates, he said.
With new trucks, he can compete for better drivers, which leads to a higher level of reliability and fewer accidents.
Schwab and other owners said they would hire more drivers if they could find ones who are qualified.
"I wish we had more," Schwab said.
Kenneth Andrews Sr., owner of Mercer Transportation of Wichita Kansas, said he would hire two drivers — today — if he could find them.
"I'm having trouble finding qualified drivers," Mercer said. "There are professional drivers and there are truck drivers. We want professional drivers."