Business News for the Mississippi Delta

Transportation Industry Challenges

Driver Shortage, Infrastructure Shortcomings and Regulations

By Mark H. Stowers

Products, commodities, raw and finished goods have to get from one place to another whether by highway, the river or sometimes train. Across the Delta trucking companies and other transportation providers are feeling the challenge of finding qualified and capable drivers, finding their way through a mishmash of crumbling roads and bridges and sifting through the regulations that state and federal governments place on them.

Hal Miller, president of the Mississippi Trucking Association in Jackson, oversees the industry. As an affiliate of the American Trucking Associations, the MTA has been helping truckers and trucking companies for the past 75 years. The non-profit corporation has more than 300 member firms including for-hire and private truck operators along with allied industry members. Miller explained several challenges the industry is facing.

“Our biggest issue right now in Mississippi and it translates on a national level as well—the infrastructure issue,” Miller said. “The Delta has felt more pain that most folks with bridges and roads. On a state and national level, the funding to go into infrastructure is lacking. There’s a big struggle to get anything done to start addressing it.”

The MTA and other organizations and industries have challenged the Mississippi legislature to step up and find a solution to funding and fixing the states roads and bridges, according to Miller.

“If nothing else, push funding for the maintenance end of it,” he said. “Fuel taxes are the primary way to fund infrastructure and our fuel tax in Mississippi has not gone up since 1987. Try and do anything with the money you had in 1987. It just doesn’t work. Our industry pays the majority of the fuel tax. We run about 11 percent of the actual miles driven but pay 41 percent of the taxes. Increasing the fuel tax is the most equitable way to fund it.”

The second issue Miller brought up is the truck driver shortage. Across the country there are more drivers retiring than are coming in.

“Based on what study you read, and it’s going to get worse before it gets better—there is a truck driver shortage. Today, nationally, we are somewhere in the neighborhood of 40,000 to 50,000 drivers short depending on where you live,” Miller said. “Meaning that there are 40,000 to 50,000 loads sitting out there on any given day that need to go somewhere but can’t.”

That number is only going to grow according to Miller.

“By the year 2022, we may be as much as a quarter million drivers short. Again, that translates into 250,000 loads sitting on a dock on any given day that can’t get somewhere—in a dock, in a field or in a port. That’s a pretty significant economic throttle in a negative way,” he said.

The MTA and other organizations are looking for ways to solve the driver shortage.

“The average age of a truck driver today is 52 but the average age of the workforce is 42. That translates into younger folks not entering our industry as fast as the older ones retire,” he said. “And 47 percent of the workforce is female but only six percent of drivers is female.

We are trying to figure out how to get more females into our industry.”

Another issue with infrastructure problems is that bad roads and bridges causes congestion of roadways.

“Currently right now in the United States, congestion costs our industry $64 billion dollars a year in congestion and re-routing issues,” Miller said. “All the different bottlenecks we have. They calculate that into 996 million hours that our industry wastes each year. That equates to about 362,000 drivers sitting around doing nothing. Combine that with the driver shortage and you can see that if we solve one we can halfway solve the other.”

But congestion is congestion and clients need their products delivered to locations both large and small.

“At the end of the day you still have to go through Atlanta, you still have to go through different cities like that. In some cases, you can schedule where you can avoid some of it but the reality is when your customer has certain demands of when they need it you have to schedule to meet their demands. As far as dealing with congestion there’s just not a whole lot as an industry we can do,” Miller said.

Miller noted that “twelve percent of our bridges are structurally deficient so we need to deal with that pretty quickly. That’s pretty concerning that it just keeps getting kicked down the road. In the last five years, 30 states have raised their fuel taxes to deal with infrastructure and we’re not one of them. I think there are only five states with lower fuel taxes than us. We built a great highway program in 1987 but haven’t done anything with it since then. I think the best analogy I’ve heard is it’s like having a leak in your roof. You keep putting it off and you’re going to have some pretty serious structural issues. If you put off road maintenance it’s not going to be the same hole out there in two years than it is today. We’re just hoping there’s something that can be done there.”

The Delta has had problems with bridges on Highway 6 where weight limits were posted but those have been dealt with according to Miller. Regulations also slow down drivers even with the new administration working to cut out or reduce industry regulations.

“They do want to fix it and their solution—a lot of it is—public/private partnerships. A private entity would come in and invest in your infrastructure—whether it be a toll bridge or toll road—which sounds great if you live in a state like New Jersey or Florida or Texas where you have that kind of traffic count where that would work. But that wouldn’t work in Mississippi. There’s not that big of a traffic count and the other side of that is nobody like toll roads. I don’t think you could get private entities to come in here and invest in infrastructure and count on a return of their investment in a reasonable amount of time when they could just go to California or Texas and recoup their money a lot faster.”

Across the Delta, trucking and river boat companies have their own challenges. At T&L Freight in Cleveland, operations manager, Brian McCune has a hard time finding suitable drivers to keep in the company’s truck cabs.

“Finding good drivers. Drivers are hard to come by—the ones with good sense,” McCune said. “Drivers that can handle things that come up without being babysat. Experienced drivers are hard to come by.”

The cross-country trucking company has been in business for more than a decade and relies mainly on “word of mouth” to find qualified drivers. He also finds it a challenge in keeping up with constant DOT regulations as well.

At DEH Trucking, operations manager, T.A. Jennings and his drivers work to haul medical and automotive supplies around the country as well as Delta State University Statesmen football equipment to away games. The challenge Jennings focused on is the driver shortage.

“We don’t have as much of that problem as other companies because we are a smaller, niche organization. Our drivers are at home more than the bigger companies,” Jennings said. “That’s one of the things drivers like about us but the shortage is a nationwide problem.”

With 53 vehicles, DEH has nearly 80 employees that traverse the eastern United States and the mid-west since 1997.

“They are all dedicated routes that we run over and over,” Jennings said. “We don’t have much routing problems due to infrastructure issues but we do re-routing due to weather or an accident.”

DEH’s main location is in Cleveland but has offices in Madison and Mountain Home, Arkansas. Jennings also explained that the digital age and technology has put a burden on the aging driver industry.

“We are having to go to electronic driving logs. They are mandated industry wide. And the new technology with the trucks paired with the aging drivers is another issue. The workforce is getting older and everything is based around technology now. Some of the drivers are concerned about that,” Jennings said.

Miller added that “truckers fill out daily logs logging how much time they spent driving. They are only allowed to drive so many hours in a day. Some companies may have allowed their drivers to fudge those logs a little bit and the drivers got good at fudging but the electronic logs won’t allow that now. When the driver gets to the point where they run out of time, they have to stop and don’t have the ability to stretch it.”

That leads to another problem for drivers but could be a money-making opportunity for land owners.

“Where are all these guys going to stop for the night?” he said. “We’ve got parking issues but the electronic logs are for safety. The private sector will need to help figure this out,” he said. “Truck stops will do all they can to help but it’s not a cheap proposition to build parking for truckers.”

Off the main highways and byways, Magnolia Marine in Vicksburg has their own set of transportation challenges getting goods up and down the Mississippi River and other major tributaries. The challenges Roger Harris faces change with the weather.

“We’re in the towboat and barge business and there are many challenges to that,” Harris said. “Especially with the flooding that we’ve had. And in the coming months we’ll be looking at transporting petroleum in drought times.”

Harris explained that business is currently sluggish on the Mississippi River.

“With the reduction in the cost of oil we’ve seen a reduction in the amount of petroleum being moved on the inland water way systems,” Harris said. “We’ve also seen a declining market but we know that’s a cyclical market.”

Magnolia Marine has a 23-boat fleet that travels up and down the Mississippi River to and from refineries. Their tow boats and barges can be found across America in cities such as St. Paul, Houston, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Cairo and Vicksburg.

“We go in all the Mississippi River and its tributaries,” he said. “We provide feed stock for refineries and move finished products away from refineries to public terminals for export to other countries or for different uses such as power plant fuels. We deliver to a plethora of businesses.”

With 260 employees, each boat has anywhere from seven to nine employees. The 23 boat fleet ranges from 2,000 horsepower to 5,000 horsepower engines in its medium sized tow boats. Magnolia Marine has been in business for the past 51 years and focuses mainly on moving “black oil.”

“We push the black, nasty and thick stuff,” Harris said. “That’s our bread and butter. Typically, that’s used in the sunny months of the year from April to October.”

The seasonal business sees wintertime stock consisting of heating oils and thick type oils. Spring and fall is the time for asphalt and road type tars. Spring and summer is the season for gasoline and fuels.

The employees are on for 30 days and off for 30 days. Magnolia Marine picks them up and gets them home.

“All of our employees base out of Vicksburg but we get them to the boat or off the boat we get them home whether that be by vehicle, crew van, by rental car or by airplane—whatever it takes to get them to the boat or home.”

One challenge Harris faces is finding qualified crew members.

“It’s certainly a challenge to get certified people to stay with you. That’s the key to it. It takes a lot of training to do what these guys do out here—years of training and obtaining Coast Guard credentials,” he said. “They are all Coast Guard licensed—a driving the boat, engineer or a tankerman aboard a boat. It takes a while for guys to get to that level.”

There are schools that train but most of the training is on the job. Hinds Community College does offer training—a deckhand school that is a six-day schedule.

“It’s geared toward entry level people who want to learn about tow boats. They also have a US Coast Guard Tankerman School. We’ve had three or four of those sessions so far and they’ve been productive,” Harris said. “There are three companies here in Vicksburg and between the three of us we usually provide them with plenty of students.”

In navigating the river, off loading to 18-wheelers is not generally an option if the Mighty Mississippi is difficult to navigate. The sheer bulk of product going up and down the river is massive.

“When the river rises or falls we still load and discharge at the same terminals. Most terminals are built with the extreme highs and lows designed in. We normally push two to six barges with our tow boats. Just to put it in perspective, one barge holds 139 trucks worth of product. You say that times six and you’ve got an amount of products equal to 834 trucks. They carry a lot of product and carry a lot of product cheaply when compared to trucks or rail,” Harris said.

Transporting good via roadways or waterways, each company faces challenges they need to overcome and keep America moving.