Striking back

| September 01, 2006

Another anti-congestion tactic has some carriers relieving over-the-road drivers of the delivery burden altogether. That’s the approach Schneider National is eyeing in several major metro areas.

“We look at where it might make sense to add some local drivers – Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles and parts of New England – who would do nothing but deliver loads,” says John Miller, vice president of one-way truckload operations for the Green Bay, Wis., mega-carrier. “Long haul would hand off to a local driver who knows how to navigate the system well.”

As fleets try to maximize their flexibility to minimize congestion-related delays, technology can help. Everyone looks forward to the day when a system can detect slowing traffic miles ahead and, via a navigation tool, spit out an alternate route within seconds.

That’s the vision of Alain Kornhouser, co-founder and chairman of ALK Technologies, which markets mapping and navigation software to the industry. He imagines motorists collectively using Global Positioning Systems, wireless communications, computer processing and robust navigation software to share traffic data and use it to quickly calculate estimated arrival times and obtain alternate routes when trouble spots are detected. Most of the necessary technologies are available today, but they haven’t been linked together.

One option to offset some of the productivity lost to congestion is for trucks to carry more freight on each trip.

As Congress heads toward another major highway bill in 2009, the American Trucking Associations hopes to win fleet owners some flexibility on truck size and weight, says Tim Lynch, ATA’s senior vice president of federation relations and strategic planning. ATA supports policy that would allow gross vehicle weights of 97,000 pounds in certain situations and greater use of longer combination vehicles. It also seeks federal authority to allow Western states to standardize weight rules to make interstate transportation more efficient, Lynch says.

“The specifics of what we’re seeking are not yet mapped out,” Lynch says. Critics charge that upping the gross vehicle limit to 97,000 pounds would require governments to spend billions to reinforce or reconstruct bridges nationwide. Conceding that point, ATA is not pushing the 97,000-pound allowance in areas where bridge integrity is at issue.

Yet, any slackening of such limits is sure to draw controversy, and not just from vocal critics such as Public Citizen, a watchdog group. At its annual meeting last March, the board of the Truckload Carriers Association, representing the industry’s largest segment, failed to endorse the ATA policy.

“Truckload carriers have very legitimate concerns,” Lynch acknowledges. Hauling 97,000 pounds means spec’ing a third axle on the trailer, and based on past experience with size and weight changes, many truckload carriers fear they would have to buy new trailers to stay competitive without fair compensation from their shippers. If shippers need those higher payloads, they must be willing to pay for them, Lynch says.

Higher truck payloads also have been controversial among trucking’s traditional nemesis, the railroad industry. During the debate over the most recent highway legislation, ATA and the American Association of Railroads agreed to a cease-fire; neither sought changes in truck size and weight rules. But that pact won’t necessarily be renewed for the next go-round.

Despite their Capitol Hill skirmishes, the trucking and railroad industries are working together more closely. Several large carriers, such as Schneider and J.B. Hunt, are aggressively pursuing intermodal business. Earlier this year, Schneider launched a dedicated train service to manufacturers and businesses in the Ohio River Valley in collaboration with CSX Intermodal and the Kansas City Southern Railroad.

Rail has its drawbacks, but it can help fight congestion in many high-traffic areas, such as ports. In Southern California, planners are eyeing more rail links to move containers out of the congested ports at Los Angeles and Long Beach to truck distribution centers miles beyond cities.

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