Economic Slump Hits Nation's Truckers

fromKCUR

There are fewer big trucks on the road this summer, and they are carrying much less. Freight shipping is off 20 percent. Big, heavy items like building materials are down much more; food shipping also has taken a hit. The slump has left drivers waiting long days for loads, driving long distances with empty trucks to get them and earning less per mile when they do find work.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

If you've been on the highway lately, you may have noticed there are fewer big trucks on the roads this summer. Consumers are buying less, so everybody involved in the vast system that moves products from farms and factories to stores is feeling the difference. We have a report this morning from Frank Morris of member station KCUR in Kansas City.

FRANK MORRIS: First thing in the morning at the big truck stop in Oak Grove, Missouri, the restaurant is not quite half full with truckers like D. Jones(ph), killing time, making calls, looking for work.

Mr. D. JONES (Trucker): Good morning, Jeff. Oh, I'm just sitting here in Oak Grove. Well, I'm waiting for you to give me some good news.

MORRIS: Not much of that lately. For every five truckloads moving last year, there are now only four. That's left Jones parked here in his black cap, red shirt and boots.

Mr. JONES: If there's somebody's come up with a hot load here, well, I'm gone. If not, I'm here for another day. Freight's down, way down.

MORRIS: Jones finds work where he can. His last load before today was hauling shell casings for military bullets. He also hauls hazardous farm chemicals. Shipments of construction materials and heavy equipment are off the most, fresh and frozen food the least. But even Mac Shepherd(ph), a big guy at the country who hauls meat and produce in a refrigerator truck, is idling here today.

Mr. MAC SHEPHERD (Trucker): I've been doing this for 32 years. So I'm kind of -it kind of comes and goes. But here lately, it just - I ain't never seen it this bad.

(Soundbite of door slamming, engine starting)

MORRIS: And these days, when D. Jones fires up his diesel, it's likely it's not to be a long haul empty just to make a pickup.

Mr. JONES: That is a no-no. That burns your profit up in a hurry.

MORRIS: To make matters worse, shipping rates have collapsed along with demand. Bob Costello, an economist at American Trucking Associations, says the slowdown's hitting independents and big trucking firms alike.

Mr. BOB COSTELLO (Chief economist, American Trucking Associations): Trucking companies are just shrinking. They're just getting rid of trucks. You don't need them.

MORRIS: And trucking isn't the only part of the freight chain suddenly way too big for this economy.

Mr. DOUG FERRELL (Vice President, Scarborough International): Yeah, there's a lot of empty warehouses. In Kansas City alone, there is millions of empty square feet of warehouse space.

MORRIS: Doug Ferrell is vice president of Scarborough International, a warehouse and customs broker in Kansas City.

Mr. FERRELL: The range of stuff that comes through this warehouse is very broad, anywhere from animal pharmaceuticals to plastic material for Wal-Mart cups, plates, things like that, to tractor engines, diesel engines.

(Soundbite of shrink wrap machine)

MORRIS: As a machine shrink wraps this spinning pallet of plastic Christmas knick knacks, Ferrell says the warehouse business overall has dropped about 20 percent, although they have noticed a recent uptick as some of the seasonal business starts to come in.

(Soundbite of crashing)

MORRIS: A few miles away, Keith Milburn, the owner of Creative Fulfillment, another warehouse, says they've also seen a couple of bright spots. These light up mirrors they're unpacking, for instance.

Mr. KEITH MILBURN (Owner, Creative Fulfillment): They're what I would describe as vanity mirrors or ladies' makeup mirrors from China. We had one container that came in last Thursday, got another one today, and we've got another one within the next couple of weeks.

MORRIS: High-end wool socks appear to be selling well, too, as are $500 leather-bound Beatles trivia books. But economist Bob Costello cautions that overall, freight shippers are in for more pain as the logistics system, developed to serve a nation of wealthy free spenders, continues to shrink.

For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City.

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