Astrong Canadian dollar, weaker southbound volumes, snags and quagmires at the border and on the road to it. Welcome to more of the same in 2008.
While the coming year unfortunately will not look much different from this one, 2008 may at least bring the promise of greener fleets and better roads.
According to economist Derek Burleton, associate vice president, and director, economic studies, TD Bank Financial Group, the steady rise of the Canadian dollar, coupled with high energy costs, will likely mean a dampening of the economy well into 2008.
“Overall, Canada’s regional economies are seeing a shift of reliance from the US to international markets, but the US will continue to be the lifeline of the Canadian economy,” said Burleton.
“Alberta’s economy will lose some steam, cooling off to a growth rate of about 3% into 2008 (down from 4% this year) tied to cost pressures, labour shortage, and shortage of materials,” he said.
British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Atlantic Canada appear to be benefitting in some ways from Alberta’s losses. BC and Saskatchewan anticipate healthy job growth as the cost of living in Alberta grows and jobs spill over to the neighbouring provinces.
Atlantic Canada, meanwhile, has seen a renewed flurry of activity in energy, utilities, construction and manufacturing, with New Brunswick leading. In Nova Scotia the forestry sector continues to decline.
“In Ontario and Quebec, in 2008 we predict continued lean times with contraction in manufacturing,” said Burleton.
And all of the provinces face broader, long-term challenges with regard to infrastructure.
“There are optimistic signs that the government is getting the message about this challenge but it’s a long term issue. Border fees and infrastructure are huge setbacks. There’s still a need for the provinces on the whole to look at improving trade opportunities,” said Burleton.
The data has not been lost on Canada’s provincial trucking associations, which have been ramping up efforts to meet the challenges ahead.
According to British Columbia Trucking Association president Paul Landry, southbound volumes in the province were already slowing down even prior to a significant rise in the dollar. But on the jobs front, with Alberta’s economy cooling slightly, Landry said that carriers in BC are finding it a bit easier to get qualified workers. He said the BCTA is pleased with funding commitments to improve infrastructure in the province.
These include improvements to the Trans Canada highway, the South Fraser perimeter road, key east-west and north-south routes Highways 10 and 15, and bottlenecks removed at Kicking Horse Pass and Kelowna.
On the environmental front, Landry has made several recommendations to B.C.’s Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services that he said would provide financial incentives to encourage the trucking industry to step up its efforts to reduce greenhouse gas and smog emissions.
“We’ve indicated our strong desire and willingness to work with government on environmental initiatives. We want government to provide more regulatory flexibility (weight forgiveness for APUs, and super singles). We’ve also requested that government consider financial incentives for the acquisition of new trucks and for legacy fleets, such as forgiving sales tax for new equipment, waiving first year registration or licensing fees, etc.) While it’s difficult to say what their response will be we wanted them to understand the industry’s resistance to acquiring new equipment,” said Landry.
BCTA has been pushing for minimum truck driver training that would be available through a coherent and consistent training system of approved institutions. The program would consist of pre-Class 1 licensing and on-the-job training by employers who also have to meet certain standards. Approved driver trainees would be distinguished from regular Class 1-licence holders. At press time, the standard had received approval in principle by the province’s Industry Training Authority (ITA).
“The next step is to begin working on the program itself for their consideration. This process will probably take us to February 2008. We’ve engaged a consultant to help us define the skills and knowledge required. We’re hoping by late spring to have approval from ITA where we can move on and offer the program for Fall 2008,” said Landry.
He stressed that such a program would need a strong commitment from employers.
“While the smallest of companies would struggle to be involved in this program hundreds have enough trucks and infrastructure to deliver mentoring and on the job training,” added Landry.
According to Mayne Root, executive director, Alberta Motor Transport Association, the trucking industry, like most other industries in Alberta, continues to have recruitment problems in all aspects of the industry from drivers to mechanics to office staff.
“We are competing with all of the other industries, some of which are able to pay better, even for general labour-type jobs. For drivers, insurance requirements and training costs make it difficult for younger people to get into the industry as they need to be over 21 and have the proper class of license just to get started and, at that time, they certainly aren’t qualified to jump into a tractor trailer unit and hit the road. The company then has to provide them with on-the-job-training and mentoring to get them to the point that they can safely operate the equipment and handle the freight,” he said.
In the late 90s the association, together with industry, developed the Transportation Training & Development Association to address the need to attract more people to the industry and provide the required training for them to be successful.
“In 2007 we received final approval from Advanced Education and Alberta Infrastructure & Transportation to conduct a pilot project for a college level course for professional drivers. Red Deer College and driving schools in Edmonton, Calgary and Lethbridge are working together to provide in-class and behind the wheel instruction for the multi-week course that is eligible for student funding. Unfortunately, conditions were placed on the program to not include the Class 1 training and license. As a result, we are having difficulty getting students for the pilot project.
“The employers have adjusted their rate structure and benefit plans to maintain their current driving staff and to attract other, mature people to the industry. In addition, they have had to adjust their shift scheduling to better appeal to new entrants. Some carriers have also begun hiring foreign workers, where possible.
Another challenge is that the drilling sector has slowed considerably over the last year.
“I have heard that as few as 27% of rigs are working this year compared to 2006. This means a slowdown in the hauling of pipe, equipment and supplies to that industry but that is the only sector that has experienced a slowdown. I am still getting calls daily looking for companies who can carry goods within the province, nationally and internationally. We do not see this slowing into next year. The border security issues continue to add cost and time to highway transportation going south and coming back into Canada and many companies have completely pulled out of the international market but the rest are doing what they have to to meet the constantly moving and more demanding requirements.”
With regard to infrastructure, said Root, Alberta has been fortunate to have a well-established highway network but they are now encountering difficulty in keeping it properly maintained and upgraded.
“At last note from the province, they are several hundred million dollars behind on this. With the availability of more funding being announced in the last few months, we have seen an increase in the number and scope of projects being started – Calgary & Edmonton ring roads, Highway 63
to Ft. McMurray, improvements to the Highway 3 corridor in southern Alberta, several interchange upgrades throughout the province, etc. These projects may be causing some traffic delays now but will result in safer and better highway systems.”
According to Al Rosseker, executive director, Saskatchewan Trucking Association, the province is facing an acute driver shortage with many companies making use of the Saskatchewan Immigrant Nominee Program (SINP), which allows Saskatchewan to nominate applicants, who qualify under criteria established by the province, to the federal government for landed immigrant status.
“It’s a longer process than we’d like,” said Rosseker. “We also have the largest truck driver training school in Saskatchewan, which trained 1200 drivers last year.”
There are also lots of initiatives to bring in new candidates from First Nations communities. While Rosseker said there isn’t a groundswell, it’s a step in the right direction. “There are members of our association working almost exclusively in the north (of the province),” he noted.
Southbound volumes have also not been good for the province. “We’re not going to hurt as much as Ontario but goods aren’t moving. Some of the commodities are still flowing but the stronger dollar is making them more expensive,” said Rosseker.
The association, which in 2007 celebrated its 70th anniversary, has set out some key priorities for 2008.
“We would like to develop more partnerships with training entities. We’re also branching out with a pilot project on heavy equipment training as there is a shortage of skilled operators there too. There are so many components to trucking and a wealth of opportunity in the industry,” said Rosseker.
At press time, the province of Saskatchewan also announced a primary weight corridor network called Clearing the Path (CTP), with aim to increase primary weight access on municipal roads throughout the province for a more integrated transportation network.
Bob Dolyniuk, Manitoba Trucking Association’s executive director, said that there is currently excess capacity in the province.
“The auto, pulp and paper and BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) crisis have meant a shift in market focus for carriers. They have looked to other markets to keep their trucks busy,” he said. “We’ve been in this situation for over a year with excess capacity southbound and even domestically,” he added.
It has destabilized pricing and Dolyniuk said he expects a shakeout ultimately.
“Some carriers have just walked away from certain routes.”
With excess capacity, admittedly, some of the pressure is off the driver shortage, but Dolyniuk said the issue is not on the back burner and only means the association is looking harder at the question of making its membership more efficient and productive.
MTA members are actively involved in the immigration nomination program. Manitoba Public Insurance is also launching a $5 million program over the next three years to train 250 new entrants per year for the industry, he said. Dolyniuk said that centres such as Winnipeg are well placed to attract business with the promotion of trade corridors like the Asia Pacific Gateway.
“As the cost of living rises with wages in Alberta, it’s less compelling to locate consolidation and distribution centres there, where the wage scales are competing with the oil industry.”
Manitoba has announced $4 billion in funding over 10 years to fund infrastructure. They’ve also committed $400 million over five years for bridges.
“These have not had the attention they’ve needed,” said Dolyniuk. “But if these projects don’t go through during this timeline, the funds will go back into general expenditures and not into infrastructure.”
On the environmental front, Manitoba is looking at an ethanol and biodiesel mandate over the next few years.
According to David Bradley, president, Ontario Trucking Association, the tight capacity situation of a few years back has evaporated with the flight of the Canadian dollar, combined with woes in the domestic auto manufacturing industry.
“Whenever you have an over-capacity situation in a competitive marketplace you will see downward pressure on rates and that is what is happening in the trucking industry. Many carriers are trying to keep equipment that would otherwise be parked up against the fence on-the-road or retain their drivers for when things do eventually turn around. Personally, while shippers are doing what they can to reduce transportation costs — and they have the upper hand in rate negotiations for now — I do not see the current rate situation as sustainable over the longer term,” he said.
“Operating costs continue to go up and must be paid for; the economic cycle will eventually begin to turn up again at some point; and the demographics of the driving force clearly point to a deepening driver shortage in the future, which is perhaps the single most significant factor impacting capacity levels. For now though, its batten down the hatches,” said Bradley.
On the infrastructure front in Ontario, the Ontario Trucking Association noted that while the province has done a pretty good job in maintaining highway budgets at or above a billion dollars per annum for the past number of years, the needs in Ontario are great.
“The problem is that the infrastructure gap is so great. It also takes an excruciatingly long time to get approvals for highway investments. The Windsor situation is but one example. Both the federal and the provincial governments have committed to having the Detroit River International Crossing report completed by the end of this year and I think it is important that we hold them to this deadline. We have already seen how easily delays can add up to several years. Moreover, once the report is in, it is imperative that the politicians at Queen’s Park and Ottawa actually follow-through on the recommendations. The time for consultation and new proposals is over. On the broader infrastructure front the challenge is always to ensure a proper balance between transit (which is presently very much in vogue) and highways,” said Bradley.
He said that OTA fully expects the Ontario and Quebec governments to introduce legislation on speed limiters before the end of 2007. The plan would be for it to become law by the Spring and fully operational by January 2009.
“The industry’s economic goals have never been as aligned with the environmental agenda as they are now. CTA is working towards some sort of rebate program for enviroTrucks as early as the 2008 federal budget. There will also be a role for the provincial government, not only in terms of financial incentives but also in terms of some flexibility in the weights and dimensions standards to accommodate things like wide base single tires, aerodynamic fairings and APU’s without payload penalty,” said Bradley.
From an economic point of view perhaps the single largest issue on OTA’s agenda could be the outcome of federal-provincial discussions aimed at harmonizing the provincial sales tax and MJVT (multi-Jurisdictional Vehicle Tax with the GST.
“It would be great for the industry if that were to happen,” said Bradley.
The government of Quebec is embarking on a road network modernization that includes the creation of an agency specializing in managing overpasses and bridges and the funding thereof. It is also launching a road network recovery plan, the introduction of new methods and new practices to monitor the network, and dissemination of complete, permanent information in real time for all citizens.
Quebec’s Minister of Transport, Julie Boulet, announced these initiatives following a report of the Commission of Inquiry on the De la Concorde Overpass in Laval, which collapsed on September 30, 2006.
The government’s objective is to restore 83% of the roads and 80% of the structures to good condition within 15 years. A
total of $11.6 billion will be invested over the next four years to complete the first five-year plan, 29% or $3.5 billion of which will be allocated to conservation of structures. For conservation of roadways, over $2.9 billion, the equivalent of 25% of the budget, will be allocated to improve the network.
“The construction and management of structures are increasingly complex all over the world. To stay on the cutting edge, we have to specialize,” said Boulet.
The Quebec trucking industry, meanwhile, has spent a large part of 2007 dealing with a Transport Quebec ban on heavy trucks from 135 bridges and overpasses, following the Ministry’s release of a list of structures requiring inspection.
Double trailer trucks were banned from the listed highway structures, and trucks that normally require special permits to haul heavy loads were not allowed to request clearance.
Marc Cadieux, president of Quebec’s trucking association, said the ban has affected transportation costs, with trucking and the end consumer shouldering much of the burden of increased rates due to detours imposed on trucking companies. Cadieux said the industry was essentially paying for years of infrastructure neglect.
Transports Quebec recently lifted travel restrictions on 31 of some 55 recently inspected bridges and overpasses. At press time, the Ministry had determined that no further intervention will be necessary for 29 structures while some 21 would need significant repairs. Of five more that were inspected, the level of intervention needed has yet to be determined. Some 60 more structures are still to undergo evaluation and the timeline for that is proceeding normally, said the Ministry.
While the Quebec Trucking Association (ACQ) has welcomed news from MTQ about the infrastructure initiatives, still on the table is the issue of whether or not trucking companies can be compensated for the extra costs they’ve been subject to. To recoup costs, noted the ACQ, they would have to demonstrate gross neglect on the part of the Quebec government.
Meanwhile, Canada, Ontario and Quebec have also signed an MOU to develop the Ontario-Quebec Continental gateway and trade corridor, which aims to optimize the connections between air, marine, road and rail transportation to better meet current and future demands in transportation.
According to executive director, Peter Nelson, the high Canadian dollar is affecting the forestry sector in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, but the manufacturing sector in the Maritimes, which he said often gets left out of the mix, has also been affected.
Meanwhile Saint John, NB, is becoming an energy hub, with the possibility of a second refinery being constructed there and a second or even third nuclear reactor at Point Le Preaux.
“We’re all facing the same issue,” said Nelson of the Atlantic provinces. “We’re in a global war for qualified workers, whether for the oil and gas sector of for trucking, even into the administrative positions.”
The upside, he said, is that all of these (initiatives) are a draw to win workers back from Alberta.
“Hopefully the boom will assist other sectors in recruiting,” he said.
Nelson said that in many parts of the Atlantic provinces you are seeing manufacturing pulling out because the market is not there. This is exacerbated by problems such as tolls and the costs of Marine Atlantic ferry system.
“Day & Ross could take a 53-foot van load of french fries to Vancouver and never pay a toll the entire way, whereas going from Borden, P.E.I. to Newfoundland will cost you $500 in tolls. The phrase ‘the $8 head of lettuce’ in Newfoundland was coined here,” he said.
“Newfoundland is a consumer and not much more comes back from there, and this is true in many parts of Atlantic Canada. We have a stagnant or declining population base, and we’re increasingly not a market for shippers, producers and manufacturers, which in the end reduces choice for Atlantic Canadians. We’re at a tipping point costwise,” said Nelson.
In summer 2007 the president and CEO of Cianbro Corp. put forth a proposal for an east-west toll highway in Maine that would run from Calais to Coburn Gore and that would reduce travel time, costs and fuel emissions for the 1000 American and Canadian trucks that travel through Calais daily. For this alternate to be considered as a feasible route, though, New Brunswick would be required to twin the highway from Point le Preaux to St. Stephen and Quebec would have to build a new highway.
“But we won’t use the road unless it’s easier for us to get into or out of the US,” said Nelson.
And with the increased bureaucracy at the border, an issue for trucking overall, this isn’t a likely scenario anytime soon.
Nelson added that trade-promotion initiatives such as Access Atlantica, (with the Atlantic provinces, Quebec and several north-eastern States) and the recently announced Saint John Gateway project, are promising if they can meet the needs of the various modes of transport.
“The pitfalls of gateway projects are that we could bring all sorts of containers in through the ports but they’d still be stuck at the border,” says Nelson.