Wisconsin trucking companies are feeling the effects of the sharpest nationwide drop-off in freight in more than a decade.

The American Trucking Associations’ monthly tonnage index, a much-watched figure in the industry, fell 11.1% from November to December as the recession tightened its grip on the economy. Year over year, tonnage was down 14.1% last month.

“No question, December was ugly. . . . It is very unnerving to see it drop off as much as it has as fast as it has,” said Jack Schwerman, president of Tankstar USA Inc., a Milwaukee carrier that fields 900 drivers hauling cement, liquid chemicals and dry bulk cargo.

“Demand has certainly been lower,” said Rick Roehl, president of Roehl Transport Inc., an 1,800-driver company based in Marshfield.

That decline is having a widespread impact as the trucking industry, which hauls most of the freight moved in the United States, reflects the downturn in the broader economy.

Trucking company failures through the first three quarters of 2008 pulled a record number of trucks off the highways, according to Donald Broughton, a St. Louis-based analyst with Avondale Partners.

No major Wisconsin carriers have failed, but the worsening economy has had a number of effects.

Kenosha’s JHT Holdings Inc., the country’s largest factory-to-dealer hauler of newly built semitrailer trucks, reorganized in a voluntary bankruptcy proceeding last year.
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