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Transportation News Bulletins - LTL and TL

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Highway investment hits $20 billion
Tuesday, 03 November 2009 00:00

WASHINGTON—The Federal Highway Administration crossed the $20 billion mark in approved obligations for highway, road and bridge projects this week, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced today. Of the $26.6 billion available for federal highway and bridge projects under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, more than 75 percent has now been obligated.

“Even though winter is right around the corner, highway and bridge projects are still getting underway, creating thousands of jobs and saving thousands more,” said Secretary LaHood. “The Recovery Act is helping repair America’s roads and bridges while putting people back to work.”

The $36 million replacement of the I-25/Alameda bridge in Denver, Colo., pushed the FHWA past the milestone. The project’s approval capped one of the busiest months of highway spending, with nearly $760 million approved.

Other substantial progress made recently includes:

  • In August, construction began on the $26.2 million I-279/Fort Duquesne Bridge preservation project in Pittsburgh, Pa., designed to improve the safety of the bridge that serves an estimated 81,000 drivers each day.
  • In September, work got underway in San Bernardino, Calif., on a massive billion-dollar project, using $128 million in ARRA funds for additional lanes on I-215 to reduce traffic congestion that had been crippling the local economy.
  • Also in September, work began on the three-mile extension of Minneapolis’ Trunk Highway 610 to I-94. When completed, this project will reduce traffic congestion and improve area residents’ quality of life with sound walls and a pedestrian bridge, and
  • Last month in Nelsonville, Ohio, construction started on the 8.5-mile, four-lane highway to divert interstate traffic from local streets. The project is using $138 million in ARRA funds and is the largest Recovery Act underway in Ohio to date.

“By addressing many long-overdue repairs to America’s roads and bridges,” said Federal Highway Administrator Victor Mendez, “projects like these are improving the economy and local quality of life while strengthening the nation’s infrastructure.”

To date, nearly 8,500 highway projects have been approved and nearly 5,000 are underway., 11/3/2009

Truck Tonnage Dips in Sept., but Economy Shows Gains
Monday, 02 November 2009 00:00

The freight recovery paused in September as American Trucking Associations’ tonnage index dipped 0.3% from the month before after recording larger gains in July and August.

The seasonally adjusted index was down 7.3% from a year earlier. That year-to-year gap was the smallest since November last year, but it was the 12th consecutive month that the index trailed the yearearlier period.

However, the U.S. economy grew at a 3.5% annual rate in the third quarter, indicating the potential for freight improvement in coming months.

“The third quarter GDP reading was encouraging,” said ATA economist Tavio Headley, who noted that most of the increase resulted from the federal auto buyers’ rebate program and a decline in inventories.

“The trucking industry should not be alarmed by the very small decrease [in the tonnage index] in September,” ATA Chief Economist Bob Costello said Oct. 23. “We took two steps forward in July and August, and this was a minuscule step backward.”

The Commerce Department’s Oct. 29 report of a strong gain in gross domestic product recorded the first increase in four quarters and followed a 0.7% drop in the second quarter.

“Between most economic indicators recovering and less of an overhang in inventories, I’m confident that the industry is still on the road to recovery,” Costello said.

Among those positive indicators was the improvement in a ratio of inventory relative to sales, which posted the best performance in nearly a year.

Freight volumes last rose on a year-over-year basis in September 2008, when the index stood at 112. That month typically starts the fall peak shipping season, which was missing last year.

Costello said he believes modest tonnage improvement will be a trend, but he cautioned there will be “ups and downs in the months ahead.” The freight decline in September followed an August index of 104.1 that reached the highest level in six months and was an improvement of about 5% from the April index, which was at the lowest level in 13 years.

Mixed signals appeared in other trucking indicators, economic reports and comments from some fleet executives.

While ATA’s index dipped slightly, load-board operator TransCore said its spot-market freight index rose 9% in September from August but still trailed last year by 14%.

The Conference Board’s index of leading economic indicators rose in September, marking the sixth consecutive increase in an index that forecasts national economic activity three to six months ahead.

Single-family housing starts also have perked up, and in September were only 9% below that month last year. However, the cumulative decline this year from 2008 stands at 28%, according to the Oct. 23 report.

On the other hand, the Conference Board said on Oct. 27 that consumer confidence fell in October.

Meanwhile, less-than-truckload operators Saia and Arkansas Best Corp.’s ABF Freight System said during conference calls that October tonnage was weaker than in September, while Vitran Corp.’s CEO Rick Gaetz said the company’s October tonnage would exceed the year-ago level. He called the positive comparisons “a very encouraging step.”

“I anticipate a fourth-quarter freight environment with stable demand and no further degradation in pricing,” said Henry Gerkens, chief executive of Landstar System.

“The growth in trucking volumes will be moderate and inconsistent since industrial output and household spending are still soft,” Headley said. He cautioned that while GDP growth should continue that it’s likely to slow because of head winds faced by consumers, including high unemployment and tight credit.

Credit Suisse analyst Christopher Ceraso said in an Oct. 23 note that modest improvements in recent economic indicators have led him to modify his 2009 freight forecast to a year-over-year decline of 10.1%, rather than 10.7%.

For next year, Ceraso predicted freight would drop 0.8% from 2009, an improvement from the 1.7% drop he had projected from weak totals so far this year.

A key reason for the decline, he said in his report, was weakness in the residential market that includes new home construction and improvements that continue to trail far behind 2008 levels.

Without seasonal adjustment, tonnage rose 2% from August to September to an index reading of 107.9, ATA reported.

The economic weakness in ATA’s index, which fell about 9% year-over-year, was reflected in thirdquarter earnings for publicly traded freight companies. Nearly every motor and rail carrier recorded worse results this quarter than in the 2008 period.

Logistics and brokerage operator C.H. Robinson Worldwide managed to raise earnings 2% to $95.5 million in the quarter. Improved results in its truck segment, which accounted for 85% of profits before administrative expense, were attributed to lower rates paid for transportation capacity and reduced fuel expenses.

Among carriers, only Saia reported year-over-year earnings growth, which was linked to savings on vacation and other personnel-related costs. Covenant Transportation Group Inc. narrowed its quarterly loss, excluding a one-time asset-impairment charge.

Transport Topics, 11/2/2009

Shipment Index Falls 4.7 Percent
Monday, 02 November 2009 00:00
Reversal in October sends Cass measure to lowest point since May

The closely watched Cass Freight Index of U.S. shipping slipped 4.7 percent in October to its lowest point since the spring, reversing several months of gains and signaling the economic recovery remains fragile.

The decline in the shipment index from September to October was the first month-to-month drop since a slight drop in July and left the index at its lowest point since May.

The setback in October came after a September report in which the index of freight shipping reached its high point in 2009, bolstering suggestions that retailers and manufacturers were starting to push more goods through pipelines as the recession was ending.

But the shipment index, also down 12.3 percent in October against the same month a year ago, suggests shippers remain cautious.

The Cass Freight Index measure of shipper expenditures also slipped back, falling 2.5 percent in October from the 2009 high set in September.

On a year-over-year basis, the spending index was down 22.9 percent compared to October 2008.

Journal of Commerce, 11/2/2009

Truckload Demand In Line With Seasonal Trends
Monday, 02 November 2009 00:00

The October 30th weekly proprietary Truckload Index showed demand and capacity mostly in line with seasonal trends, according to Morgan Stanley.

That said, our index will start to show year-on-year improvement next week as carriers are now lapping the sharp downturn in economic activity last year, said analyst Adam Longson.

Demand was steady and improving year on year during the week ended October 30th. Our incremental demand index remains relatively steady despite passing the typical seasonal peak, said the Morgan Stanley report. The year-to-year comparisons are showing some gains over the heavily depressed levels of the same period in 2008. Our demand index represents incremental demand, not total demand, but recent positive trends have been consistent with gains in truckload demand as inventories have moderated.

But incremental supply remains stubbornly high, according to the report. Despite capacity leaving the industry and talk of carriers failures, our incremental supply index (a proxy for excess capacity, not total supply) continues to hold at elevated levels. Incremental demand is starting to follow seasonal trends, but our incremental supply index has continued to climb—defying the normal seasonal trend. We believe this not only reflects the poor state of the market (i.e. carriers can't afford to flex with seasonal trends), but also the magnitude of the supply overhang.

Outsourced Logistics, 11/2/2009

Congress Votes to Extend Transportation Funding
Monday, 02 November 2009 00:00

Both houses of Congress on Oct. 29 approved a second continuing resolution that would continue to fund the nation’s surface transportation programs until mid-December.

The House passed the bill, which also provided annual funds for the Environmental Protection Agency, by a 247-178 vote. Several hours later, the Senate approved the measure 72-28.

The first temporary extension, passed before the Sept. 30 expiration of the highway funding law, was set to expire on Oct. 31. Besides funding highway and transit programs, the resolution provides emergency funding to continue operating the federal government.

“It appears that we’re going to ride the [continuing resolution] as far as it takes us and then decide what kind of extension we want,” said Jim Berard, spokesman for Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Observers said a second short-term extension could be a win for Oberstar, who has battled the Senate and the Obama administration for a new six-year bill sooner rather than later.

“Chairman Oberstar wants a three-month extension, and he’s already counted October in those three months. So, he basically wins,” said Tim Lynch, a senior vice president of American Trucking Associations.

As the House was preparing to vote, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood continued to push for the 18- month extension favored by the Obama administration.

“We had recommended an 18-month extension, and not many people on Capitol Hill paid attention to that, since now it looks like there will be an extension through [mid-] December,” LaHood told a House subcommittee Oct. 29. “The president wants a very strong, comprehensive robust transportation bill. He believes in it. We believe in it. But, we also believe that we’ve got to find $400 [billion] or $500 billion to pay for it because that’s probably what it takes to have the kind of bill that we all want.”

Earlier in the week, it appeared the Senate was moving toward a six-month extension, through April.

“This six-month extension, which I proposed to my colleagues on the [Environment and Public Works] Committee, is a fair compromise and a very important step in the right direction,” Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) said Oct. 26. “We must keep the pressure on to reauthorize a robust, multiyear transportation bill that will meet America’s surface transportation needs and put America’s economy back on track.”

However, Lynch said that before the six-month extension could reach the Senate floor, an objection was lodged, effectively killing it.

It is the second time the Senate tried and failed to pass an extension: Before the current bill expired on Sept. 30, the Senate unsuccessfully tried to pass a three-month extension.

“You’ve seen movement on the Senate side come from 18 months down in their timeline. I think the chairman’s argument is certainly raising the prospects . . . of doing a bill sooner rather than later,” said Mike Joyce, a lobbyist with the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association.

Oberstar is “winning these small little battles,” he said, which keeps the bill “on the front burner.”

But Joyce said it may be hard to pass a long-term bill because, “unfortunately, 2010 is an election year, so if you’re going to raise user fees or taxes, that may be very difficult.”

Lynch said an increase in the fuel tax might be the most palatable option ahead of the mid-term election.

“The political calculation is: Are you in worse shape if you vote for a fuel-tax increase in an election year, or are you worse by dipping into general fund, thereby being accused of increasing the deficit in order to pay for a highway program?” Lynch said.

There are “only two things they can do” to finance a long-term bill, he said: “. . . vote an increase [in the fuel tax] in order to pay for the program, or take it out of general revenue.”

The general revenue argument, he said may “have been attractive, but the political dynamics around that are such that, that may be less acceptable to the public than a fuel tax increase.”

OOIDA’s Joyce said he believed Congress would continue passing short-term extensions beyond December.

“I get the feeling that we’ll be pushing into that six-month time frame that the Senate had wanted,” he said, because in mid-December, “a three-month [extension] is probably most likely when you look at the congressional calendar.”

Transport Topics, 11/2/2009

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