Breakbulk road transportation in the US

Trucking is the most important freight transport mode in the US – but what about breakbulk?

Project cargo is an important consideration for trucking fleets, as well as standard ro-ro and breakbulk transporters.

Let’s have a quick overview of the state of play for road transport and breakbulk in the United States.

Trucking & project cargo in the US

Overall industry: the quick stats

Road transport represents $796.7bn in spending – 80% of the US’ total freight bill – according to 2018 statistics from the American Trucking Association.

Haulage firms carry 71.4% of all freight handled in the United States. That is a grand total of 11.49bn tons. The national fleet is made up of 36m trucks, tractors, and trailers.

Over 297.6bn miles are covered by American truckers every year.

From the above, we can see how road transport is a significant cog in the US logistics machine. Given the size of the country, and its 6.58km road network, it only makes sense that trucks are the primary transport mode.

Despite this, for heavy transport at least, there lacks national consistency in how permits are allocated, and routes planned, for road transporters.

Heavy road transport permit allocation “consistently inconsistent”

Depending on states, counties, and municipalities cargo is due to pass through, costs and timelines for oversized load transportation differ greatly. There is no singular national permit system.

For instance, in California, trucking permits are a flat $16 across the board. In Oklahoma and Wyoming, heavyweight load permits can cost up to $4,000.
The cost is not just financial. Timelines also differ, which can cause significant delays in project completion.

For instance, the process for moving four expired reactors weighing over 700 tons each from the closed San Onofre nuclear plant in San Diego to a site in Clive, Utah, took two years.

On the other hand, Minnesota is very speedy in awarded oversized/overweight (OS/OW) road permits. Average insurance allocation time is just 1.5 minutes. Anderson Trucking Services – based in Minnesota – said it can get 6,000-10,000 permits per month through state authorities in the US to move heavy loads via road.

With its part automated digital system, California can now offer permits within two hours, depending on the load and route. Indiana, on the other hand, can take up to 10 business days.

Another problem is the definition of super and megaloads. Again, these vary from state to state. 

Superloads, a common industry term, refer, in the US, to cargoes that surpass a state’s given definition of routine permit limits. Megaloads, those that take up two lanes of traffic, and cannot fit under bridges, are also subject to state-by-state definition.

For instance, some states allow 65,000 pound (32.5 ton) loads on three axle combinations, while others set a maximum of 60,000 pounds (30 tons). 

Adjustments are required when moving across state boundaries. For example, transporters are able to move 185,000-pound shipments from Toronto to Baltimore, but this cannot be moved onto Texas as Texas allows less weight per axle.

This lack of consistency is causing consternation amongst truckers. The combination of inaccuracy in suggested routes, permit delays, and weight and size restrictions has led to the overall industry being termed “extremely frustrating and wasteful”. 

What’s the solution? The answer seems to lie in digital processes. Caltrans, California’s state transport department, is already moving towards this as mentioned above. The idea is to have an online portal and database of weight/load restrictions, which transporters can fill out to get permits quickly and efficiently.
Some 33 out of 50 US states have moved, at least partially, towards digital automation. 

Wind power adding to strain but creating demand for road transport

In 2019, the US wind energy sector reached 100 GW capacity, now generating enough renewable energy power to power 32m homes nationwide.

More wind projects are expected to come. The Federal Production Tax Credit (PTC) scheme, essentially giving tax breaks on new wind power projects, is winding down. It will be phased out by 2023, so the haulage industry is bracing for an uptick in wind projects as companies race to take advantage of reduced tax burdens.

A further 46.5 GW is in the installation pipeline.

For some road transport firms, this means they are already fully booked. Texas’ Lone Star Transport, for example, has much of its equipment booked through 2020 and expects demand will not fall off in 2021. 

Trucking firms are advising that cargo owners plan far ahead in order to guarantee effective project delivery time. Many carriers are currently at peak capacity and are facing potential driver shortages over these lengthy projects.

This is due to the fact drivers specializing in piloting heavy-haul rigs are low in number and are in particularly high demand. The expertise is there, but cargo owners must be prepared to meet road transporters halfway when it comes to planning and project time frame considerations.

Despite this, 2021 is expected to be a very busy year for road haulers in the wind sector. Many are expected to pick up lucrative contracts shipping the football field length and heavy components wind farms require. 

Road transport remains vitally important to US project cargo sector

As it stands, road transport is still one of the most important sectors in oversized cargo movement throughout the US. 

There remains a space in the market to supply states with proper digital permit systems, with 12 yet to adopt necessary systems.
There is also a potential market for trailers and equipment required to carry oversized wind components too. A skills gap in drivers is here too, but with the importance of wind for US heavy load transport, it is on haulage firms to begin training their staff to cope with improved demand.

Score US project freight road transport contracts at Breakbulk Americas 

Breakbulk Americas is where the project cargo opportunities will be, as well as the region’s largest gathering of sector professionals.

Book your place and find your next contract in Houston, Texas, this year.