Slow and Steady

By Max Kvidera | September 09, 2009

Hauling oversize loads brings high revenue, but travel restrictions and the cost of permits, pilot vehicles and police escorts eat into the bottom line.

Oversized
Owning his blade trailer gives Chris Sheehan flexibility to handle very long loads but requires a monthly payment in addition to his truck payment.

Chris Sheehan can’t imagine doing anything else. The Shelton, Wash.-based owner-operator is a “blade runner” who moves massive windmill blades used to generate electricity. Leased to Integrated Energy Wind Services, he’s hauled blades as long as 153 feet, stretching his overall length to 178 feet. “It’s the most gratifying thing I’ve done as a trucker,” he says.

Sheehan is a member of an unofficial corps of truckers who specialize in handling oversize or overdimensional freight. They transport heavy construction equipment, cranes, transformers, yachts, modular housing and other big bodies. These owner-operators face restrictions that govern where they can operate, when they can haul and how fast they can travel. After obtaining applicable permits, sometimes they have to wait for days until a state trooper is available to accompany their loads. While the process is often frustrating, the compensation is well above average.

Like most trucking segments, however, oversize trucking isn’t what it was before the recession hit. Loads are harder to find, pay is less and many owner-operators have left the field.

For example, Bruce Bryant, an owner-operator leased to Landstar and Overdrive’s 2008 Trucker of the Year, says instead of transporting construction equipment to job sites as in past years, he’s hauled several pieces of repo’d construction gear to auctions this year. Will Duncombe, an owner-operator from Katy, Texas, leased to Anderson Trucking Service, says 60 percent of his trips this year have been transporting general freight, something he falls back on when he can’t find oversize loads. Sheehan says he’s sat idle for days in recent months, and he knows oversize haulers who haven’t worked since October.

But for those who have held on, the rewards usually outweigh the headaches, which start with permits. Every state requires them. The permit specifies the load, its weight, dimensions and when and where it can be transported.

Permit fees, which are paid by the customer, vary widely. The single-use permit to haul wind blades ranges from $10 in some states to more than $500 in others. In these days of budget shortfalls, some states have doubled or tripled their fees.

A bigger problem, according to Wes Mollno, president of WCS Permits, is the slowdown in state services caused by budgetary problems. “We were informed in July that California’s offices are closed on Fridays,” he says. “Michigan is closing on Fridays as well. When you close offices on a business day, you’re basically telling trucks they can’t move… It forces them to run illegally or sit and park their trucks.”

The job of securing permits varies from load to load and is handled by companies that specialize in permits, the transport company or, in some instances, by the owner-operator. Sheehan orders his own to ensure accuracy and to get his desired route.

Bryant orders permits early “because if you wait until, say, Thursday afternoon, you probably won’t get them until Monday,” he says. Since most states prohibit pulling oversize loads on Sunday, “you could have run Friday and Saturday if you ordered early,” he notes.

He always adds a few inches to the dimensions specified for the load to compensate for inexact measurements. “They tell us to measure before you order your permits,” Bryant says.

In some cases, someone else’s inaccurate measurements can get the hauler in trouble. Once a customer of Bryant’s estimated the weight of an excavator at 70,000 pounds. When Bryant pulled up to a scale and found he was overweight, he had to return the load after a 120-mile roundtrip. “I didn’t get paid a dime,” he recalls.

Some states require escort vehicles in both front and rear; a few specify a steering vehicle in the rear, along with a trailing pilot car; and some don’t require any at all. In Montana, if your total length is 150 feet or more, you must have two pilot vehicles.

Sheehan owns a 2008 Dodge truck as a pilot vehicle and employs a full-time driver who doubles as a team driver when running empty to pick up the next load. He modified his trailer to be able to carry the pickup and save fuel and wear and tear on the vehicle, which already has more than 50,000 miles on it. “I’m able to absorb some of the costs by not having to pay for a pilot car and driver,” he says. “Some companies supply you with a pilot vehicle and driver and you’re stuck with it, even if he crashes.”

If you’re running a load wider, taller, longer or heavier than the basic oversize classification, state police often are required as escorts. In some states the duty is rotated among patrolmen, while in other states the duty is voluntary. Bryant says he had to cool his heels for about eight days over almost two weeks waiting for police escorts while transporting two loads with his father from Arkansas to California. Mollno says, “California can sometimes do overkill, and turnaround times are horrendous.”

Regulations for oversize loads specify how fast you can run, such as 10 mph below the truck speed limit. As much as possible, oversize haulers prefer to travel on interstates, both for speed and the absence of time-consuming tight turns. When you reach a corner or a sharp turn on a two-lane with a long load, you have to stop, unlock the steerable trailer to maneuver the turn and then lock it back.

It’s often difficult to find a parking place for a load that’s 150 feet or longer, says Eric Larsen, an owner-operator who’s been driving for Joule Yacht Transport for almost eight years. The Piqua, Ohio, resident knows the truck stops and rest areas where he’s likely to find parking.

“It’s hard to get into the IdleAire spots,” he says. “Even buying fuel and getting up to some of the pumps is a problem. With low trailers, if there’s even just a little dip in the driveway, you can get stuck real easily.”

For safety reasons, many states ban evening travel. But you can travel at night in Utah. Same goes for Minnesota, but your oversize load signs must be reflective on the tractor and pilot vehicles.

Road conditions can play havoc with oversize loads. If there’s ice or snow on the road, you can’t go. If there’s fog or visibility under a half-mile, you are prohibited from running. Especially troublesome for long loads are crosswinds that can push a trailer from one lane to the next.

“The transportation department will probably shut the road down before we get into winds high enough to bother us,” says owner-operator Duncombe.

Such situations are just one example of where experience is prized for owner-operators looking to do oversize hauling. Gary Ayers, vice president at Arlington Heavy Hauling in Jacksonville, Fla., looks for owner-operators who have at least a year of verifiable experience transporting machinery or heavy equipment.

Ayers also wants drivers who “aren’t too finicky” about what they haul as opposed to those who are attracted to the way a load looks on their truck or where the load is going.

“We like drivers who have a good understanding of their profit margin and their bottom line,” Ayers says. “Those are drivers who understand you might make more profit on a 300-mile move than you make on a 3,000-mile move, even though the longer move pays more money. Those are guys who are pretty golden, because they might work a regional area and do pretty well at it.”

Bryant, for example, says most of his loads are within 1,000 miles of his Alabama home. Ayers says one of his owner-operators lives in South Carolina and commutes to Florida to perform local oversize hauling during the week before returning home for the weekend.

Larsen says that once you make the adjustment to navigating oversize loads, the work isn’t that much different from hauling general freight. “But you need to pay a lot more attention to what you’re doing,” he says.

Deflated revenue

The oversize market is down sharply, owner-operators report. The combination of a weak economy and the slow pace of stimulus funding has hurt industries whose shippers are major customers of oversize haulers.

“Last year was a record-setting year,” Will Duncombe says. “We ran as hard and as fast as we could go all year. In January, everything just disappeared.”

Duncombe earns 66.5 percent of the adjusted gross, which is what’s left after expenses such as permits, police escorts, insurance and load finding fees are taken out. Last year, he generated $258,000 in revenue and netted $95,000 before taxes. This year, he expects to net $30,00 to $40,000 less.

Eric Larsen is paid 70 percent of what’s left after expenses and fees are deducted. He estimates last year’s revenue at $167,000, covering 75,000 miles, while revenue through early July this year was about $60,000 over 30,00 miles. “It averages out to a little better than $2 a mile for all my miles – empty and loaded.”

Bruce Bryant’s revenue will be $60,000 to $70,000 less than 2008’s $300,000-plus. “On average, my per-mile rate is down about 75 cents per mile. For a legal load that requires a lowboy because of height and weight, I’m getting $2.50 to $3 per mile. Last year, I was getting $3 to $3.50. The fuel cost has gone down, but there’s not nearly the freight.”

Bryant gets good pay and enjoys increased availability because he owns two trailers, a double-drop and a tri-axle step-deck. However, such investments often aren’t cheap, particularly for specialty trailers.

When Chris Sheehan became an owner-operator about three years ago, friends backed him with $100,000 to get started, but he still had to finance $244,000 for a used tractor and new trailer designed to carry windmill blades. Sheehan says that Trail King Blade Transit trailer with a steerable rear end cost $156,000 – twice as much as his used 2005 Peterbilt 379.

Few owner-operators own gooseneck trailers for hauling oversize because of the capital investment, says Gary Ayers of Arlington Heavy Hauling. Most who do own trailers have a step-deck or flatbed, which limits the loads they can handle. “We see owner-operators put everything they have into their truck, so they lease on to a company to get trailer access,” he says.

Costs are oversized, too

Chris Sheehan says receiving $10 to $11 a mile for a high-paying run these days might sound great (even though last year he was getting $14 to $15 a mile), but costs take a big chunk out of that. For example, fuel costs are high because he averages only 3.5 miles per gallon. Sheehan booked $160,000 in revenue last year and ended up with $28,000 in profit. “That’s not a whole lot of money,” he says.

Here’s a breakdown of some major expenses related to oversize hauls:

EXPENSES

PERMIT: Ranges from $10 to more than $500 per state per trip

PILOT VEHICLES: $3/mile for wages; $50 to $65/night for motel per driver

POLICE ESCORTS: $250/car; $100/hour

Oversize, wide and too small

One of Randy Brown’s first oversize loads taught him the meaning of proper size.

 Brown, who started Baldy Mountain Trucking in Sheridan, Mont., to try something different and ride out a slowdown in his plumbing business, recounts pulling beams to a construction project at the University of Washington in Seattle. While passing through a weigh station in Washington, he was told to drop his load and get an “Oversize Load” banner to replace the “Wide Load” sign in his truck. He complied.

At the next weigh station, the attendant informed him, “We’re going to have to cite you because your oversize sign isn’t big enough.”

Brown says bureaucratic gymnastics won’t deter him from transporting other oversize loads and general freight. “First time you do anything, there’s always trial and error,” he says.


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