RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And a lot more goods are rolling along the nation's highways these days. That's good news for the economy, and also for truckers.
Frank Morris of member station KCUR in Kansas City hit the road to see how the rebound in freight traffic is helping truckers.
(Soundbite of highway traffic)
FRANK MORRIS: I'm on Highway 71 going toward Kansas City, and I'm trying to get over a lane, but I got this big truck blocking my way. There's a truck ahead of me and there's a truck behind me. (unintelligible)
It seems like there are more trucks on the road these days. Turns out, there are.
Mr. TAVIO HEADLEY (Economist, American Trucking Associations): Well, what we're seeing is a definite pickup in overall freight activity.
MORRIS: Tavio Headley, an economist with the American Trucking Associations, says freight traffic has risen pretty steadily since late last year.
This April was almost 10 percent better than the one before. The broad gauge ATA uses to monitor the trucking industry has climbed back to where it was just before the recession.
Mr. HEADLEY: So that's very positive news.
MORRIS: Cause for celebration, even.
(Soundbite of music)
MORRIS: The Truckers Jubilee, held at a truck stop in Oak Grove, Missouri, is part-barn dance, part-job fair. And at this one, job seekers have the upper hand.
Sundy Muse-Morton is here with O&S Trucking.
(Soundbite of roulette machine)
MORRIS: She's got a roulette wheel doling out trucker's swag to entice would-be employees.
Ms. SUNDY MUSE-MORTON (O&S Trucking): Because we're having to turn down freight because we don't have enough drivers. I mean, for all the freight shortage last year, it's coming back now stronger than ever, and we literally can't keep up.
Ronnie, what's your last name?
Mr. RONNIE TRAVIS: Travis.
MORRIS: Over on the other side of the tent, Mark Welch is working for Landstar, a company that employs drivers who have their own trucks, so-called owner-operators.
Mr. MARK WELCH (Landstar): Capacity right now is tight to say the least, and we're anticipating it getting worse because a lot of owner-operators just left the industry in the last couple of years.
MORRIS: Some 1,700 small trucking companies folded just last year. Yet, even as the freight market improves, trucking businesses continue to go under. Semi trucks lost a lot of value in the downturn. There was a glut. Now that freight is moving briskly again, the trucks are in demand. Since they're worth more, banks are more inclined to repossess them. Seven hundred thirty companies went under just in the first few months this year. It could easily have been 731.
Mr. ROBERT MANLEY: January, I thought I was going to have to quit. I was going to go ahead and file bankruptcy and be done with it.
MORRIS: Robert Manley got his banker in Marshal, Missouri to give him a break, even though he'd fallen behind on the payments on his old truck.
Mr. MANLEY: Well, since the new motor I put in it, it's got 400,000 miles on it - on the motor - but the whole truck itself has got over a million, 250,000.
MORRIS: With a strong increase in freight traffic early this spring, Manley was able to march into his bank to settle up.
Mr. MANLEY: No, I went in person and handed them the money.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MANLEY: Sign the title over to me. Took the title and went into the bank vault and put it right there.
MORRIS: You don't get rich driving a truck. Many drivers make less than $40,000 a year, some less than 30 for their long hours and weeks away from home. And, as truckers say, if the wheels don't roll, they don't get paid. For now, Robert Manley and others like him are grateful they're rolling often enough and long enough to cover the bills.
For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City.
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