The trucking industry has a lot to be thankful for right now, said Dean Cotton, executive director of the Mississippi Trucking Association.
On nearly all fronts things are going its way: the economy is good, fuel prices are low and Congress has smiled favorably on the industry with both increased funding for surface transportation as well as seeing that Mississippi gets a bigger share of the tax dollars it put into the Department of Transportation coffers.
“Basically, in a nutshell, we don’t really have any major concerns right now,” Cotten said.
Is that unusual?
“That’s highly unusual,” he said.
On a state level, Cotten said the $3 billion 1987 and 1996 highway construction program has been the biggest boost for the industry. Not only has it helped trucking become more efficient and reliable, but the construction has given trucking firms plenty of work hauling raw materials.
Improved highways, Cotten noted, have also brought new industry which depends on trucking to haul in raw materials and take out finished goods.
“The economy is good and people are doing well and the trucking industry is benefitting from that,” he said.
Northeast Mississippi, which once had no four-lane highways and has seen some of the greatest benefit of the improved highway transportation, is a good example, he said.
“I remember when it wasn’t a good outlook for that area,” he said. “That certainly isn’t the case anymore.”
And with the state now set to receive more of its share in federal dollars, now that Mississippi will be getting roughly 93% of what it pays back in tax dollars — up from 85% — Cotten said the future continue to looks good for road and bridge construction.
“We now have one of the best highway programs in the country,” he said.
One of the biggest coups for the transportation industry in general, and trucking specifically, was the passage of a $216-billion surface transportation bill known as ISTEA.
Although the bill received major negative press as being one big pork barrel project, Cotten said it will be hard to overlook the impact of the bill.
Scott Miller, president of Miller Transporters in Jackson, agreed that of all the bright spots in the industry right now, the passage of ISTEA has probably been the brightest.
Another good turn of events for the trucking industry has been the rough times faced by rail, Miller said.
But the problem with rail is not a lack of business but too much, as well as improving the dated infrastructure and equipment, which it is doing, albeit slowly.
If the industry has any dark cloud it is the same problem facing so many other industries: finding good, reliable workers. While the good times have created lots of opportunities, it has also created a market that is sorely wanting good employees, particularly drivers, Miller said. “It’s not a preferred lifestyle for most people,” he said, noting that some competitors have even begun giving signing bonuses of up to $1,500 just to attract workers, a tactic Miller hasn’t warmed up to yet.
“That’s not something I see us doing anytime soon,” he said. “Business is good but not that good.”