By Terry Dickson
Special to The Florida Times-Union
There is a trucking initiative before Congress that could improve shipping and fuel efficiency while rendering a lot of country music songs obsolete.
House Bill 1799 would allow a six-axle on trailers converting many of the rigs on interstate highways and other federal roads from 18-wheelers to 22-wheelers.
Mike Bell, director of external affairs for Rayonier, told business leaders at a logistics forum at College of Coastal Georgia Wednesday the change would make shipping by truck more efficient by increasing the gross weight from 80,000 to 97,000 pounds.
Proponents of the bill introduced in March say the heavier loads would also improve safety by reducing the number of trucks on the roadway and increasing trucks stopping power with the additional brakes on the added axles.
“Congestion is the big factor in safety,’’ Bell said at the annual Critical Issues forum sponsored by HunterMaclean, a law firm with a practice dedicated to logistics.
Bell asserted that improving the capacity of individual trucks is necessary because U.S. trucking policies are “frozen by politics.”
“We’ll never be able to build roads fast enough to keep up with traffic and freight,’’ he said.
While it would help companies like Rayonier move more product in each truck, it would not shift the company away from rail, he said.
The bill would authorize but not require states to accept the 22-wheel rigs inside their borders.
Harold Arnold, president of Fram Renewable Energy LLC in Georgia, agreed that the U.S. is “woefully inefficient in trucking.”
“We need to do something about it to remain competitive with the rest of the world,’’ he said.
Fram does all it can to eliminate empty trucks, he said. The trucks that bring sawdust and other raw materials to the mill then are loaded with finished wood pellets and head to the ports, Arnold said.
The trucks are hauling freight at least 70 percent of the time they’re on the road, he said.
The company has mills operating in Baxley and Lumber City converting Georgia pine components to wood pellets for shipment to Europe. Fram is building a third plant in Hazlehurst and is headed toward 1 million tons a year, he said.
But Fram, like other producers, also relies heavily on rail to get its finished product to the port for shipment overseas, Arnold said.
Norfolk Southern will improve some of its tracks to enable Fram to move more product by rail to Brunswick, where upgrades at the port have increased the loading capacity from about 4,000 tons of pellets per day to 12,000 tons at times, Arnold said.
“That really increases Fram’s competitiveness in the market place,’’ he said.
BRUNSWICK SPEED BUMP
Bill Dawson, who manages the Georgia Port Authority’s ship operations in Brunswick and the barge terminals in Bainbridge and Columbus spoke of the “speed bump” that hinders shipping in Brunswick.
Eight years ago, the channel was deepened from 30 to 36 feet, but some of that was lost to shoaling, Dawson said.
Local pilots have asserted that they can bring some ships into port only during high tide and that results in added costs as vessels have to wait for favorable tides.
Dawson said that the Georgia ports are fortunate to have a lot of people in Washington backing the allocation of the funds needed to dredge the shipping channel to 34 feet, if not 36.
But Dawson asserted it should not be a political issue because funding for port maintenance is so important to state and local economies.
“We need a plan where it’s not an appropriation,’’ so that the money comes as needed to ensure that the state’s harbors and ports remain economic engines, Dawson said.
Bell also said that harbor deepening is needed as ships get larger.
The weight of the products that come through Georgia depends on their origin, Bell said.
“Exports weigh a lot more [by volume] than imports,’’ he said.
Because vessels “weigh out” before reaching their capacity by volume, many leave Georgia’s ports only partly filled, Bell said.
“That’s why we need deeper port facilities,’’ he said.
Rayonier also benefits from the fact that a lot of containers that bring Asian goods into Port of Savannah would return empty if the company weren’t filling them with products from its Jesup mill, he said.