Thursday, March 10, 2011

Short-sighted energy outlook

When the heck are we going to catch a break? As we speak, the national average for diesel fuel is around $3.90 a gallon. Four-dollar diesel is a reality in a dozen states and for others, may be just around the corner. The timing couldn’t be worse.

For many, a fuel surcharge helps, and the formula for calculating a surcharge involves the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s weekly fuel price averages. But since the averages involve the previous week’s prices, any steep increases week after week may leave some people in the dust to eat the difference.

As we know, the EIA releases a Short-Term Energy Outlook each month containing forecasts for prices of fuel, crude oil and other energy sources. In recent months, the Outlook is not only short-term, but it appears to be short-sighted as well.

It was just this past February that EIA analysts said oil would likely average $91 per barrel for the calendar year 2011 and that diesel fuel would average $3.43.

A lot can happen in 30 days – namely, political unrest in Egypt, Libya and other oil-producing countries. So, on March 8, the EIA amended its predictions, saying oil would average $105 and that diesel fuel would average $3.81 for calendar year 2011.

For those doing the math, that’s an adjustment of $14 in the forecast for a barrel of crude oil and 38 cents for a gallon of on-highway diesel.

What the EIA is saying, indirectly, is that it ain’t gonna get better anytime soon, and if it does, it won’t be by much.

Not to harp on them too much, because we acknowledge that it’s got to be difficult to nail down what the price of energy will do in the future, especially when the market can be volatile at times due to circumstances beyond the norm.

At least with something like the weather, a few rainy days always give way to sunshine, and vice versa. Sure we grumble when a weather forecaster gets it wrong, but most people realize that it sort of comes with the job.

So, what of energy forecasters? For those doing the math, it’s easy to knock the experts for getting a forecast wrong because of the direct link to a business’s bottom line or take-home pay after expenses.

If you’ve received your March/April issue of Land Line, flip to the “Fuel for thought” article and put yourself in their shoes.

One analyst we talked to hit the nail on the head when he said that forecasting prices is no more science than witchcraft is mathematics.

It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it. It’s just unfortunate that so many people rely on the analysis and forecasts to help them make business and personal decisions.

There are big issues at stake for everyone in this scenario. As the economy attempts to come out from under its rock, a lot of eyes are on the analysts, the media and the lawmakers to give us some good news.

Unfortunately, the news from the EIA each week and each month seems to fall short of what we want or need to hear.

If you’ve figured out a way to survive or even thrive in volatile conditions, more power to ya.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

It was a ‘must stop’ place …

America’s Truck Wash and Chrome Shop is gone. I’m sure the economy was the culprit. It’s taken a lot of businesses in our industry down.

The place was located on that little stretch of I-70 in Triadelphia, WV, there at Dallas Pike, Exit 11. For a lot of us, it was a landmark and a “must stop” place. The chrome shop was the main attraction, but it also had a truck wash (one of best) and internal tank wash and a drivers’ lounge with showers all in the same building. They also had a truck stop just down the hill a block.

The chrome shop, although not the largest, was one of the best. It featured just about anything you needed, including a complete line of Rockwood Products. If they didn’t have what you wanted, they would get it. I understand that the mail-order business from the catalog was the major part of their business. If you needed a part chromed, if you needed vinyl graphics or a custom-made part, they could make it happen.

The guys and gals who did the truck shows were a given as customers. But there are plenty of drivers and owner operators who never enter a truck show yet still want to spiff up their trucks. Whether it’s all the chrome goodies and detail stuff or a simple row of chicken lights or horn covers. Its called pride in your ride.

Carol Watson was the general manager. Carol’s slogan was: “If it doesn’t shine, it isn’t mine.” I can’t say enough nice things about Carol. Every time we meet she drops whatever she is doing and gives my wife Geri and me both a big hug.

I know Carol and ATWCS gave a lot back to the industry in many ways through sponsorships and charities. A couple of times it was up close and personal for us.

Back around 1997 at an indoor show in St. Louis, the promoter wanted a few show trucks for display, not having space for a truck show beauty show. Six members of the National Association of Show Trucks (NAST) were invited. Ours was one of the trucks chosen. It was my kind of truck show, no competition. They put us up at a Holiday Inn across the street for three days and paid us. ATWCS had a booth there and one evening Carol limo-ed us all to a fancy steak house. That was a fun deal.

The most memorable and touching thing we ever did happened at ATWCS’s truck show in 1998, which included a Make-A-Wish event. Carol invited 16 (more if they all didn’t make group photo) children with terminal illness for the two days. She put them and their families up in the motel up the hill, had everybody together for a meal that evening. All the eats and treats were on the house during the show along with other entertainment stuff for the kids. The show ended with a parade that went down the hill on I-70 through downtown Wheeling and back.

Before the parade each child got to pick the truck they wanted to ride in. A young lady named Lois Black picked our truck. We had a little get-acquainted time with Lois and her mother before the parade. They told us about her illness, which was cystic fibrosis, and some of the things she was going through.

When we got going, Lois rode up front with me. Her mom and Geri sat on the bunk. It was special. Afterward, we spent a couple more hours with them visiting and having lunch at Taco Bell. There were lots of smiles and hugs when they had to leave. We like to think we helped a little with Carol’s effort to bring this special child a little cheer. About eight weeks later Mrs. Black sent me a letter that Lois had passed on and thanked us and appreciated us for helping her little girl have a special day.

It was special for us, too. I’ll never forget that sweet face.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Pendulum shift on snow and ice issue?

A NY-NJ Port police officer ordered this trucker to climb on
top of trailer to clean off snow.
A couple of years ago New Jersey lawmakers essentially said “the heck with truckers” when they approved a mandate for snow and ice to be removed from vehicles. The decision was made despite an outpouring of contempt from the industry.

All along, concern among truckers has been with the fact that there are no facilities available in the state to accommodate such a mandate. Another problem is the practicality of requiring people to climb atop large vehicles, and doing it in less-than-desirable conditions.

Let’s not forget the fact that OSHA says it’s a no-no to require anyone on the job to climb to such heights.

None of that mattered to New Jersey lawmakers back in 2009. As a result, law enforcement in the state started enforcing the mandate last fall.

Since then, truckers have told stories about climbing atop their trailers to clear them off. There are even accounts of truckers being forced by law enforcement to make the climb.

Right now the requirement is isolated to the Garden State. Connecticut is set to join them in 2013 while numerous other states up and down the eastern seaboard are discussing the issue.

Despite the push for New Jersey-style rules, there does appear to be hope that common sense could win out. The surge in discussion about snow removal mandates has shown little support for the efforts.

In Maine, the head of the state’s traffic safety unit told lawmakers during a recent hearing that the rule would create a practical problem for trucks.

Spurred by an OOIDA Call to Action, one Georgia trucker contacted the chairman of the committee that will decide whether a similar rule will see the light of day. Rep. Rich Golick called the bill “a government overreach” and assured the OOIDA member that the bill won’t even be considered.

These views were ignored not too long ago in New Jersey. Lawmakers there didn’t care what those with a “trucking bias” had to say. But views on the issue appear to be shifting.

In recent weeks, one leading New Jersey lawmaker introduced a bill that would apply the brakes to the state’s enforcement of the snow and ice rule. Assembly Transportation Chairman John Wisniewski wants to exempt truck drivers from the mandate until “appropriate removal equipment” is available.

Wisniewski introduced the bill two weeks after a letter from the New Jersey Motor Truck Association reached his desk. The group’s executive director, Gail Toth, explained all of the problems the industry has experienced during the four short months since the rule took effect.

It’s unfortunate it took so long for someone at the New Jersey statehouse to listen to what people in the trucking industry have been saying.

Fortunately, the pendulum appears to be shifting on this issue. Officials appear to better understand that trading one hazard for another hazard isn’t a solution.