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South Carolina, Georgia ports working on solution to aging chassis pool

The normally competitive ports authorities in South Carolina and Georgia are teaming up to find a solution to the aging and often poorly maintained chassis pool many truckers must use to haul containers to and from maritime terminals in their states.

“Our objective is to improve the quality of the existing chassis fleet,” Jim Newsome, president and CEO of South Carolina’s State Ports Authority, said of his ongoing discussions with Griff Lynch, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority.

Each of the more than 1.2 million cargo boxes that moved across the Port of Charleston’s terminals in fiscal 2017 either arrived or left affixed to a chassis.

But many of those available in the South Atlantic Chassis Pool — which serves the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida — “leave a lot to be desired,” said Keith Johnson, president of Charleston-based H&J Trucking.

The use of old equipment, such as outdated lighting and retread tires, on pool chassis makes it tough to recruit new drivers, Johnson told the S.C. International Trade Conference last month.

And it adds to the cost of doing business when drivers have to sit roadside waiting for repairs. Johnson said his family-owned company cut its road costs by 98 percent by purchasing its own chassis rather than relying on those in the pool.

“It’s a major deterrent to a lot of operators that just leave the industry entirely because they don’t want to deal with the chassis situation,” Johnson said.

Overhaul needed

Newsome said the idea of an interchangeable chassis pool that can be used by any trucking firm to serve any port terminal in the Southeast U.S. is sound, but in desperate need of an overhaul. Of the roughly 3,000 chassis at the Port of Charleston each day, up to a quarter or more are in some form of damaged status — from having a bad taillight to being completely out of commission.

While the maritime authorities don’t want to own the chassis, they want to mandate higher standards for the single pool that serves their ports. That means, at a minimum, radial tires, LED lights and automated braking systems on each chassis. The upgraded fleet would be available “in the most efficient way possible and at the least cost possible to all users,” Newsome said.

The hope is to have a new set of standards and a third party willing to supply modern chassis to the pool by next summer.

Chassis pools throughout the country started about a decade ago, when shipping lines began selling their fleets to avoid being bound by new U.S. laws that would have made them responsible for chassis-related safety violations. Up to that point, the lines had made chassis available for free to their customers.

Over time, the leasing companies that now supply chassis to the regional pools were bought out by private equity firms that “tend to buy things to optimize them — milk some money out of them, make a profit and then flip them,” Newsome said.

Investment in the chassis repair sector has been spotty, first because the shipping lines knew they’d be selling them off and then because of the leasing companies’ limited maintenance budgets.

Out of the pool

As quality diminished, some trucking firms bought their own chassis. Newsome said roughly 40 percent of the cargo that moves through Charleston’s terminals are on chassis that aren’t part of the pool.

And some private companies have found a niche in providing “premium” services with chassis featuring newer tires and safety features.

“That was never the intention to end up with a lot of bifurcated pools alongside the common pool,” Newsome said. “But that’s how it developed — out of necessity on the part of truckers and cargo owners not wanting to wait on terminals to find a proper chassis.”

In a written statement, Lynch said a single chassis pool “works for the South Atlantic,” adding that it gives shipping lines, truckers and cargo owners a level of confidence that chassis operations will remain consistent and reliable.

Newsome hopes mandating stricter standards will make the chassis pool safer and more efficient. And that might convince truckers who bought their own chassis — but aren’t really interested in maintaining them — to put them in the pool, knowing that a high-quality trailer will be available to them even if they don’t have to provide their own.

Rob Stephenson, a vice president at regional trucking firm TCW Inc., told trade conference attendees a better chassis will go a long way toward helping an industry facing a driver shortage.

“It will draw a driver to our industry if they know they can haul a good, solid piece of equipment down the road,” Stephenson said.
Source: Post and Courier

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