COVID-19 CRISIS

They kept driving through the lockdown

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While many of us feel we’re only now coming out of a three-month lockdown, Ryan Roche has been across the state almost daily and well beyond since COVID-19 arrived in New England.

His is not a job to be done with Zoom meetings or at a computer sitting at home.

Roche drives trucks.

The pandemic has had a mixed effect on the business. On one hand, there’s been far less traffic. According to Peter Alviti, director of the state Department of Transportation, the average daily traffic for April on Interstate 95 was off by nearly 45 percent. In May, it was off by 36.8 percent.

There’s truck traffic even though freight prices are down.

“It was probably the only item on the state budget that met projections or showed an increase,” Alviti said of the state’s truck tolls in a recent interview. Toll revenues for the months of April and May totaled $4.1 million as compared to $1.2 million for the same two months last year. Largely responsible for the increase is that seven additional gantries went live between last August and April of this year.

Open roads make for quick trips. Roche, operations manager for JSA and D.L. Terminals, Inc., is usually driving short runs, although the company has customers on the West Coast.

Roche said trips to Boston have been less than 50 minutes during the day, or about half the time it usually took.

He drives a lot of LTL, truck lingo for “less than truckload.” The company makes mixed hauls, picking up several pallets from one customer, more from another and delivering them to different locations in the same area.

The demand for some deliveries, such as hand sanitizer a Providence chemical company converted to manufacturing, has increased dramatically, while other regular customers have shut down or reduced production. In order to fill trucks, making runs efficient, companies like JSA and Westwood Cartage Inc. – which also operates from the terminal on Carlsbad Street in Cranston behind Lowe’s off Route 10 – have had to depend more frequently on brokers.

As Westwood vice president Mark Greene points out, that is dividing the pie and cutting margins. The pandemic has further altered the business.

“You would think we’d be heroes,” he said.

Instead, truck drivers are viewed as potential carriers of the virus rather than the deliverers of essential goods. In one instance, a customer refused to accept and sign a bill of lading for fear of touching it. In the first weeks of the shutdown, fueling was possible at truck stops but restaurants and restrooms were closed. Portajohns were brought in to some locations, but not all.

“It [the virus] has taken away the freedom, the liberties we used to enjoy,” he says, citing restaurants and stops that provide showers. It has also made it difficult for drivers to congregate.

“It’s just them and their music,” he said of drivers.

Chris Maxwell, president of the Rhode Island Trucking Association with a membership of 500 ranging from small private companies with a few trucks to associate allied dealers with more than 100 trucks, said, “We were ready for this and we brought the country through it.”

He called the events of the last three months “a mixed bag” with a surge of freight in the beginning as people besieged markets to buy everything from toilet paper to chicken. Then, just as suddenly, the demand as well as supplies hit a roadblock.

“Some companies were on fire and some were holding on for dear life,” he said.

He said the drop in freight rates hurt many, and “some small carriers may not weather the storm.

In a newsletter to members, Maxwell writes: “When you don’t expect or ask to be patted on the back and praised for what you do each day and every day represents a gauntlet and maze of regulatory hurdles and impediments, the challenges posed by a global pandemic seem rather easy to face and overcome.”

He writes he joined a statewide business leaders’ conference call on the pandemic and he knows why and how trucking made it through the crisis.

“Over the past several months, while business leaders and state officials, mostly via video forums from the comfort of their homes, ‘yucked it up,’ doled out the praise to one another, and asked questions with obvious answers just to be heard, trucking and truckers silently went about their business unheralded and clearly on the front lines of an uncertain America. Just another day in the life of trucking …”

Maxwell points out that reduced fuel prices and reductions in traffic made for greater efficiencies during the shutdown. On the negative side, however, he too points out that rest areas and restaurants were closed and truckers delivering much-needed goods were viewed suspiciously and in some instances faced difficulties in making pickups and deliveries.

Maxwell doesn’t offer a prognosis of where the industry is headed other than to say trucking is a reliable indicator of the economy.

He mentioned a recent article in the trade publication Transport Topics that reports on the analysis of trucking industry leaders. By and large, the consensus is the economy will rebound, although there are differing views on when that will happen and what it will mean to truckers.

Bob Costello, chief economist at American Trucking Associations, described how and why freight markets weakened after an “unbelievably strong” March that helped some fleets capitalize on consumer-related freight while others suffered huge drop-offs.

“This was not an economic crisis,” Costello is quoted. “It was a health crisis that morphed. We have to get solutions to the health issues for trucking to come out of this completely. Eventually, the economy is going to grow at a really strong clip to historic highs. For now, though, the transportation industry continues to deal with the ripple effects of the pandemic, which has squeezed revenue, earnings and profit margins on freight.”

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