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ARLINGTON, VA-The current outlook for the trucking industry may be bleak, but long-term prospects are extremely bright, according to U.S. Freight Transportation Forecast to 2020, a new study sponsored by the American Trucking Association. The report, prepared by IHS Global Insight of Lexington, MA, predicts freight tonnage will grow more than 26% by 2020, while freight revenue will increase by 68% in the same period.

“Like many other industries, trucking is experiencing a very difficult time during the current economic recession,” said ATA President and CEO Bill Graves. “Yet, all signs point to a strong, vital, long-term future for our industry. Trucking exclusively serves 80 percent of all communities in the U.S. for the products and goods they receive. When the recovery begins, trucks will help lead the way.”

The forecast looks at various modes of freight transportation, including truck (truckload, less-than-truckload, and private carriage), rail (carload and intermodal), domestic water, pipeline and domestic air. Though it projects volume and revenue growth for all modes, it says trucks’ share of total tonnage will rise from 68.8% last year to 70.9% by 2020, while rail’s overall share will slip slightly from 14.9% to 14.7%. Air cargo tonnage is estimated to grow from 14.5 million tons in 2008 to 22 million tons in 2020.

The report’s basis for the overall growth in freight transport is a projected 3.5% annual average rate of growth in US manufacturing output during the second half of the forecast period. The main driver of that growth will be high-tech production, which is projected to exceed 15% per year from 2015-2020.

Though most recent ATA’s advanced seasonally adjusted for-hire truck tonnage index showed a 3% rise in January compared to December but a 10.8% fall compared to January ’08. The January index of 104.7 marked the second-lowest reading since October ’02. The index uses a base of 100 for the year 2000.

ATA chief economist Bob Costello considers the January rise a temporary uptick rather than the start of a more general upward trend. He says sustained recovery will not occur before late summer, if then. “Tonnage will not fall every month and just because it rises every now and then doesn’t mean the economy is on the mend,” he says. “Furthermore, tonnage is contracting significantly on a year-over-year basis, which is highlighting the current weakness in the freight environment.”

The falling economy is having a severe impact on trucking companies, who constitute the single most important tenant group for owners of industrial real estate. A report from Avondale Partners, a Nashville-based independent investment banking firm, says 3,065 US trucking fleets went into bankruptcy last year. A survey from Transport Capital Partners, also in Nashville, predicts additional bankruptcies this quarter due to the growing financial problems of trucking company clients.

The decrease in trucking companies affects other sectors of the industrial real estate as well. Daimler Trucks North America recently announced plans to cut production at two North Carolina manufacturing plants effective in May, due to a “significant decline in new truck orders.”

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