Shutdown Helps Some, Hurts Some in Trucking Industry

Truck stops are seeing increased traffic and more trucks are parking in their lots overnight-but the state's trucking companies are having problems getting credentials for drivers and experiencing a lag time in getting permits to haul oversized loads.

The state government shutdown has spelled bad news for 22,000 laid-off workers and for consumers wanting to enjoy some of life's pleasures-like buying lottery tickets, visiting state parks, and using the carpool lane.

The state's trucking companies are also experiencing some unique challenges, but the shutdown has been a boon for truck stops across the state, which have reported increased traffic so far this month.

The shutdown, which has now spanned two full weeks, has closed rest stops across the state, thus forcing truckers to find alternative options for state-mandated rest periods after each 11 hours of cumulative drive time.

One of the state's largest truck stops, Clearwater Travel Plaza in Clearwater, has experienced a 7.5 percent jump in sales compared with last July-and CFO Becky Thorpe thinks it's no coincidence that her facility is just half a mile from a state-owned rest area that's been closed all month.

“In terms of overall business, [the shutdown] has been positive for us,” Thorpe told Twin Cities Business. Clearwater has between 120 and 140 spots in which trucks can park-and the lot has been full to capacity most nights since the shutdown occurred. Many truck stops, including Clearwater, allow trucks to park for free overnight and offer drivers complimentary amenities like shower facilities.

Lowell Helgeson, manager of the Trucker's Inn in Sauk Center, said that his stop's 400-truck parking lot has also been full each night-marking a sharp increase from last year at this time when the lot was only about half full.

But both Thorpe and Helgeson say that there are some down sides to the increases they've seen-one being that some of the drivers aren't buying fuel and other items and are only using the facilities as an overnight stop. Also, “it does hurt the regular customers” as they're now having to compete for limited spots, Thorpe said.

The shutdown has also posed some challenges for trucking companies.

John Hausladen, president and CEO of the Minnesota Trucking Association, told Twin Cities Business on Thursday that the shutdown has greatly hindered his members' ability to obtain federally mandated credentials for drivers-including driving records and hazardous materials designations. Companies must look at motor vehicle records for all drivers on an annual basis, and as those one-year anniversaries come up, they are finding it difficult to meet that requirement and thus keep those drivers on the road.

“As an industry, we want to be safe, we want to comply with all of these many, many, many regulations, and yet the State of Minnesota is now standing in our way and preventing us from complying,” Hausladen said. “And yet if we break these rules, we will be given no leeway.”

The shutdown has also prevented companies from obtaining license plates for new vehicles and disrupted multi-state trucking agreements, according to Hausladen. Money collected for commercial license plates, vehicle registrations, and fuel tax are divided among all of the states in which a particular vehicle operates. So if a Minnesota company buys plates and pays sales tax in Minnesota, but half of its miles are driven in Wisconsin, Minnesota will send Wisconsin half of those fees.

“With this shutdown, there's a really important interplay between federal regulations, multi-state agreements, and one state deciding to not play ball,” Hausladen said.

The shutdown hasn't posed major challenges for St. Cloud-based Anderson Trucking Service, Inc., but it has required more pre-planning on the part of the company and some of its customers.

“Over-dimensional loads”-or those that exceed standard legal limits-must get special permits from each state through which they'll be transported. The state office that grants those permits is operating with limited staff, so it's now taking up to three days to get them whereas it used to take no more than a day, said Brent Anderson, Anderson's vice president of heavy haul.

“A customer can't call up and say 'we want this moved right now,'” he explained. “It's harder to respond to last-minute needs.”

The longer wait time has by no means caused widespread discontent among customers, but Anderson points to one who's upset because his crane part won't get delivered on time.

Hausladen said that he's learning about more problems among members each day. “Freight's moving, companies are being served, [and] there's lots of business happening in Minnesota,” he said. “But for individual drivers and individual companies, there is real heartburn going on.”