Cyber Monday stretches U.S. delivery system

semi trailer truck driving on open highway

ALBEMARLE — Cyber Monday 2018 has come and gone, but many of the items we ordered are still in transit to us. By road, rail, air and sea, our packages are moving in a vast system made up mostly of people, software, machinery and hard infrastructure.

In 2017, online retailers sold $6.6 billion worth of goods on Cyber Monday, a billion dollars more than Cyber Monday 2016. By the end of this week, that figure is projected to jump more than 15 percent to $7.7 billion, according to Abode Analytics. The astonishing growth in online commerce has an effect on many aspects of U.S. commerce that few consumers see, including the transportation network that ships those packages across the country astonishingly quickly.

While incredible advances have been made in high-tech solutions of how to effectively and safely route those packages from where they are to where they need to go, much of the process that gets packages to doors can’t be solved by a more powerful computer and clever coding.

One continuing concern for the trucking industry is the amount of space on the trucks that get packages from warehouses and ports to delivery companies. The types of trucks that move a vast amount of those online orders are known as “less than a truckload” or LTL, as they transport things like shipments of boxes from Amazon rather than heavy cargo from distributors to retailers. Currently, these types of trucks are limited to two 28-foot tandem trailers with a total gross weight of less than 80,000 pounds.

Because Americans are ordering more and more things that are large in volume but slight in weight (e.g., a new set of pillows for your bed), those boxes take up a lot of space in a truck, but don’t weigh it down. That means that, due to the explosive growth in online retail, these trucks run out of space in the trailer long before they reach the weight limit for what they can safely carry.

The prevalence of tandem trailers on U.S. roadways has grown due to the increases in volume and decreases in weight from online shopping. Many in the logistics industry are pushing for changes in the three decades-old rules on tandem loads to allow for longer trailers.

Twenty states now allow for intra-state shipments to travel via tandem trailers up to 33 feet in length (known as “twin 33s”). But these trucks cannot cross most state borders.

“Twin 33s are already allowed in 20 states, where they have been operating safely for years,” said Randal Mullett, executive director for Americans for Modern Transportation, in The Hill. Mullett and his group say that twin 33s operating in interstate commerce could reduce the number of tandem trailers on the highways by 18 percent.

“That extra 5 feet of capacity in a modern 33-foot trailer would enable shippers to load trucks for additional deliveries on single trips, eliminating roughly 6 million truck trips a year,” said Mullett. The group claims that the nationwide adoption of twin 33 rules would reduce truck miles, reduce fuel use and lower the trucking industry’s impact on the hard infrastructure.

Mullett and his group are lobbying Congress to change the rules, and industry leaders like FedEx CEO Fred Smith support the change.

While the package-carrying industry — companies like FedEx and UPS — would benefit from the change, other groups are opposed to it.

Edward R. Hamberger, CEO of the American Association of Railroads, opposes allowing twin 33 configurations. The railroad association has opposed opening up interstate rules to allow longer tandems, calling the change a subsidy for lighter load carriers who compete with the railroad. Hamberger said in The Hill that big trucks “do not account for the costs associated with their infrastructure use.” In support of that position, he cited a U.S. Department of Transportation study that said “many of the heaviest trucks pay considerably less than their highway cost responsibility.”

Also opposed to changes to tandem rules is the Truckload Carriers Association, which represents the drivers and carriers in the trucking industry.

“The truckload industry recognizes the benefits that would be bestowed upon our Less-Than-Truckload (LTL) associates by adding additional cubic feet of freight space and how those benefits add to their productivity,” said TCA President John Lyboldt in a letter to a U.S. House committee when the twin 33 legislation was first introduced in 2017. “The metric of mandating twin 33-foot trailers almost exclusively benefits LTL freight, thus putting the truckload segment of the industry at a competitive disadvantage.”

Lyboldt noted that the financial burden of changing 53-foot trailers as “a shift to 33-foot trailers would be considered voluntary, and the shipping community would automatically transition to carriers with the most cubic space for their goods, rendering our nation’s fleet of 53-foot trailers nothing more than antiques.”

The schism in the trucking industry along with opposition from the rail industry has so far resulted in no Congressional action. But the new Cyber Monday data, along with a national shortage of truck drivers that exceeds 50,000, could put the twin 33 legislation back on the table for the year-end transportation spending bill.