2011-04-07 / Features

Truckers See Economy Not Yet In Fast Lane

By John Luciew

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – If America’s highways and byways are the arteries of commerce, then this is where one can check the economy’s blood pressure _ the busy, bustling, hustling truck stops.

Amid all the fast-paced fueling up of diesel, food, caffeine and oil are the nuggets of economic indicators. From behind the wheels of their rigs, truckers get a firsthand glimpse of which sectors of the economy are hot and which are still hurting by virtue of the loads they crisscross the country with.

Wall Street might get all the attention, but the nexus of truck stops clustered around the Pennsylvania Turnpike and Interstate 81 in Middlesex and Silver Spring townships offers the real street-level view of the economy. Instead of charts and stocks and bonds, the constant flow of flatbeds, freight trucks, automobile carriers, refrigerated food trailers and caged livestock transports can show which direction different parts of the economy are headed.

Based on a day’s worth of interviews at the Petro and Flying J truck stops at either end of Route 11, the nation’s economy remains at a crossroads.

On the positive side, food is flying off the shelves. Truckers lucky enough to haul everything from cereal to fresh vegetables are riding high.

After being stalled out during the recession, piggyback car carriers are back to hauling their fresh-fendered cargo to dealer lots and showrooms.

Flatbeds packed with spring staples such as lumber, shingles and lawn and garden products are finally making up ground lost in the housing swoon.

Freight haulers who move packages for FedEx remain busy capitalizing on the ever-expanding Internet ordering craze for everything from diapers to diamonds.

In the slow lane, livestock transporters who should be going gangbusters during the spring busy season are seeing more ranchers thin their herds because of high feed prices.

Haulers left to vie for loads of the miscellaneous freight variety can find themselves waiting days upon days for their next destination. For the most part, there’s no great rush to put these products on shelves.

The recession might be over, but consumer demand still isn’t enough to keep most truckers running nonstop.

John Rumley hauls “ reefer” and business is smoking. It’s not what you think.

That’s trucker talk for a refrigerated trailer used for shipping food _ from fresh veggies to frozen pizza.

Business is good because, as Rumley, 63, likes to say, “People gotta eat.” He’s fresh from delivering a load of General Mills products to Giant Foods, and he’s hoping to turn right around on another run.

“I’ll get something out of here,” the Chattanooga, Tenn., trucker says of his brief stopover in central Pennsylvania.

Tax-return season means rebates. And rebates mean down payments on cars.

That’s good for Dale Snider of Kentucky. The 40- year-old makes a living shuttling sweet pre- owns between dealers and auction lots from Pennsylvania to Florida.

The car carriers are moving again. And experienced drivers like Snider are in demand. Car companies and dealers prefer veterans when it comes to shipping expensive cars and trucks, because a scratch or dent can mean thousands off the price.

By specializing in premium pre- owned vehicles, Snider never suffered the deep swoon that dinged the new car market. Now that both sectors are revving their engines again, an independent operator like Snider can be super selective about his routes.

He deals with dealers who demand cream puffs. Specifically, they covet low-mileage vehicles from Florida. Such cars haven’t been pockmarked or weathered by road salt and long winters, and they tend to turn a pretty penny up north.

Jim Hiner came to Pennsylvania for human cargo – a trucker in training whom Hiner will tutor.

The 45-year-old Hoosier pockets a few cents extra per mile to school the next generation of truckers. He can roll up more miles since his trainees take turns behind the wheel.

Lately, both sides of his business have been booming. His loads are steady, and the students looking to break into the trucking business are standing in line.

Still, it’s the endless road that separates real truckers from pretenders. One call from a lonely, crying wife can end careers before Hiner can downshift.

Big rigs aren’t just for the boys, however. More women are taking their place behind the wheel.

Rhonda Boyd has been in the driver’s seat of her Peterbilt for a dozen years. Yet she’s never alone. Her chocolate lab Ginger is her constant companion.

The dog stands guard from the passenger window as Boyd pours oil into her engine. She’s been running it hard of late.

Her company holds contracts with FedEx and Lowe’s Home Improvement, and the booming business keeps her rolling.

After dropping a load in Mount Joy, she’s turning around to haul mixed freight from Lebanon to Texas, where the goods will end up on the home-improvement center’s shelves.

“It keeps you running,” she says. “ You don’t sit around and wait. That’s how you get the miles.”

Boyd and Ginger rack up about 3,000 a week.

Betty Marquardt of Al- lenton, Wis., can only wish she were logging those kind of numbers.

Instead, she’s winding down her last run for her current company. She’s switching carriers to get more miles.

Even the road can be an old boys’ club.

“I’m just trying to find a home,” says Marquardt, weary of the favoritism.

Merlin Platt’s home is the Petro truck stop. He’s stuck there for a good three days because the livestock business is getting slaughtered by high grain and feed prices.

“We’re supposed to be real busy right now,” says the 37-year-old from Fort Dodge, Iowa.

Instead, ranchers are thinning their herds and many meat processors still have full freezers. With meat prices rising – Platt bemoans $4-a-pound ground beef – consumers could quickly lose their carnivorous cravings.

“Sometimes, you wonder if it’s worth turning the key anymore,” laments Platt.

Nevertheless, he’ll do just that when he finally heads to Virginia to pick up a load of spring calves. He’ll haul them out west, where they’ll spend their adolescence on their way to becoming prime rib and tenderloin.

Platt can only hope that such dishes don’t become exorbitant delicacies by then.

Nathan Farra is truckstop bound, too. But he feels worse than most.

In this business, you never want to run empty. Otherwise, you’re simply burning diesel and draining your own wallet.

But after delivering 42,000 pounds of cornbread mix in Lancaster, Farra can’t find another load.

“I could be here the weekend,” the 57-year-old groans, amid the idling tractor-trailers filling the Flying J lot.

But that’s just part of Farra’s problem. He’s feeling homesick and guilty to boot.

That’s because down in Melbourne, Fla., his daughter Katie celebrated her 17th birthday the day before. Farra was a thousand miles away.

Call it another cost of commerce.

Yet, it’s not just the long hours, the uncertainty of the next load and the sky-high diesel prices that have some truckers feeling run over. It’s the fact that lower-cost railroad services have swallowed up a good bit of truckers’ coast-to-coast business and have yet to relinquish it.

It’s another sign that the economy isn’t all the way back.

It can take up to three weeks for cargo to move by rail between the coasts. Truckers are still needed to carry those goods to their final destinations.

And that’s precisely the point.

If suppliers and receivers can wait all that time for their products to get from side of the country to the other, it means the shelves aren’t empty. Customers aren’t clamoring to buy. Demand isn’t in overdrive.

Judging by the economic indicators of the truck stop, America’s recovery is still trying to get out of second gear.

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