Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Roses in the snow

Here we go again: ’Tis the season to be jolly – that is, if you are going to make it home for Christmas. The maneuvering, scheming, begging is in full swing. Get me home!

Not a big predicament for local and most regional drivers, but it can be a real problem for the long-haul irregular route guys and gals. I’ve been there. On the last business day, things are looking bleak, waiting for that last minute phone call … when, in fact, a lot of the folks that generate the freight have already gone home early.

A lot depends on luck and a company that really makes an effort to get their people home. Although freight slows down during the Christmas season, there are people waiting on that meat and taters and someone has to be sitting at those docks the next day.

You can always tell it’s a holiday driving through towns off the interstate. It seems like every town has that gravel lot on the edge of town, or closed up shopping center, where the truckers leave their trucks or drop their trailers while home. On the holidays – especially Christmas – there are always several rigs parked on these lots as opposed to a few on a normal weekend.

The truck stop stores leading up to Christmas look more like a toy store gift shop. They don’t really have room for it, but they pack it in anyway, making it tough get around in there.

As far as getting home, you can’t throw us all in the same basket. Some don’t care one way or the other about getting home. There are some whose home isn’t the U.S. … some who don’t celebrate Christmas … some whose home is the road.

Then there are those like me. I’ve spent Christmas on the road several times – which I didn’t mind as long as I had something to run, and I almost always did. Being hung out to dry for three or four days would be a bummer.

One of my problems was I usually seemed to burn out a week or so before Christmas. I’d go home and swear I’m staying home until after New Year’s. After being home four or five days I’d call dispatch, “Hey man, what ya got?” You would be surprised at the really good loads that you’ve never seen before that turn up at this time of year.

The last 10 years or so my wife and I have operated in the “kids moved out and the dog died mode,” and we were always up for something new. One time she said, “WHAT?” pretty loud when we were in Florida in January and I told her I took a load to Montana. Well, it was a military load and I felt obligated.

Mostly, with friends and relatives scattered around the country, we took advantage of where the loads took us. One memorable visit was with friends in Vermont over Christmas. We bobtailed out to a campground where they were staying. That’s right, camping in Vermont in the winter. They like winter sports more than I do.

Anyway, we made it up to meet for dinner at an old farmhouse-turned-into-a-steakhouse. There was a long lane leading to the parking lot in the rear. Just as I got parked, here come these two grown men at a dead run. Not sure what was up – I hit the doorlock. It turned out that they just wanted to see our truck. Well, we were a “fer” piece up in the north woods, where most trucks have iron fenders and moose guards.

So, drivers, if you can’t make it home for Christmas, at least try to smell the roses even if they are in the snow.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Colorado ‘zipper’ a bad option

Travel eastbound along Interstate 70 on Sunday evenings in Colorado can be particularly troublesome for truckers. Throngs of skiers returning from a weekend on the slopes are blamed for slowdowns along a 15-mile portion of the roadway on the Front Range.

Possible solutions are plentiful, but funding for a fix is not. A stopgap solution entails the Colorado Department of Transportation getting to work on installing “zipper lanes” on the affected stretch of road.

The plan calls for temporarily converting one westbound lane into an eastbound lane from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Sunday ski weekends.

A CDOT study on the scheme came up with what should be rather obvious conclusions. It was determined that eastbound drive times would be significantly reduced along some stretches while westbound vehicles would likely experience much longer drive times, and more accidents.

This is a clear cut example of give and take. Truckers and other drivers traveling westbound would be giving up more of their drive time with the increased possibility of their vehicles taking a beating.

You may ask how likely it would be that state officials would back such a plan. It appears to be a definite possibility. During the 2010 legislative session, Colorado lawmakers backed a plan to study the zipper-lane option. The results are expected to be revealed within the next month – in time for the opening of the 2011 session.

At that time, lawmakers will be asked to decide whether the project is worthy of throwing money at to complete. CDOT estimates it would cost $24 million for the one-year pilot program, but there is no grant, or funding mechanism, in place to do the work.

To add insult to injury, Colorado has a budget shortfall tabbed at nearly $1 billion next year. That is not exactly the kind of financial situation that lends itself to getting anything done.

The reasons for the predicament the state finds itself in are numerous. Officials could do a better job of managing the revenue the state already receives. The federal government also shoulders the blame.

It is extremely frustrating that there still is no clear direction from the federal government on a long-term transportation authorization. Without a clear path forward, this is the sort of “solution” states are left to consider.