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Valley big rig sales hit the brakes

The national numbers point to a rebound, or at least improved conditions in the trucking industry.

In July, heavy-duty retail truck sales grew 31.5 percent to 12,609 units in the United States, up from 9,589 sold in July 2010, according to WardsAuto.com. Through the first seven months of the year, 84,677 new trucks were sold, up 43.9 percent from the 58,846 units during the same period in 2010.

The surge, however, has skipped Southern Oregon, where there are a half-dozen trucking company terminals and several fleets. "Regionally, I just don't see that happening," said Ken White at Webfoot Truck & Equipment, an International dealer that serves an area from the south coast to Lakeview and Tulelake, Calif.

His firm's new truck sales have dropped by 70 percent from their peak, about the same as the DSU Peterbilt shop in Phoenix. "We've got facilities up in Portland and they seem to be selling quite a few vehicles in comparison," said Vernon Blair, the branch manager at DSU Peterbilt. "But we haven't seen that kind of sales generated down here. New truck orders are very slim. It appears here in Southern Oregon everyone is holding on to older equipment for a while."

Although there have been occasional bright moments, the return to the glory years of 2004 to 2006 seems to be somewhere off the map. "We kind of lost contact with what was real during 2004 to 2006 because things were so wonderful," White said. "We really don't know what is normal any more."

Webfoot's customer base — refuse companies, lumber yards, construction firms, municipalities, government agencies and owner/operators — has shrunk in the past five years.

White said federal stimulus dollars spurred buying by government agencies and municipalities, but local truck dealers have had to deal with the closure of Norton Lumber's White City operation, along with the demise of Westside Lumber, Copeland Lumber and its successor, Keith Brown Building Materials.

Even if construction were to bounce back unexpectedly, he doesn't anticipate a flurry of new sales. "When the construction companies get healed up, the last thing they are going to spend money on is trucks," White said. "They are going to rebuild phone systems, inventory and things like that. If all of a sudden everything got better, they probably won't be in the truck market for a while."

While the pace of truck sales slowed from the previous two months, industry magazine Transport Topics reported July is historically the lowest sales month of the year and buying is following seasonal patterns.

California regulations play a role in local fleet operators' thinking because of the proximity of the state line.

White said the cost of a new Class 8 big rig that meets California environmental standards has reached $115,000. "Eventually, people are going to have to replace trucks, but prices are extremely high," he said. "What that has done has overpriced used trucks."

He noted a truck that would have brought $30,000 on the used market 10 months ago now commands $40,000. He said a 2008 truck with a 2007 engine will pass muster until 2023, for example. But a 2004 engine will only meet standards through 2013 before an expensive new filter has to be installed to meet California requirements through 2021.

"That can cost you anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000 to make the truck last another nine years," he said.

For now, the local dealers are relying more on repair work even as truck traffic continues to pick up on the interstate corridor. "We had a glitch when fuel prices skyrocketed a year or so ago," Blair said. "It looked like we really slowed up. But now with the fuel surcharges and diesel prices down, truck traffic is back up again.."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or email business@mailtribune.com.

Webfoot Trucking technician James Warne uses a laptop computer to diagnose the components of commercial truck. Bob Pennell / Mail Tribune photo - Bob Pennell