Snowstorms to hit capacity-strained western US freight markets (with forecast video)

Tractor-trailers stopped at snowy Donner Pass, California.

Spring started last week, but don’t tell Mother Nature. She doesn’t always pay attention to the calendar. Over the next few days, snowfall will return to some fairly high-volume freight markets in the western U.S.

Set up and snowfall amounts

A cold-core weather system will bring periods of moderate to heavy snowfall to the Sierra Nevada in eastern California and the Cascades in northern California today through Wednesday morning.

SONAR Critical Events and radar: Tuesday, Mar. 24, 2020, 10 a.m. EDT

The heaviest snowfall – 10 to 20 inches in total – will pile up in the high elevations around Donner Pass (Interstate 80), Shasta Lake and South Lake Tahoe, California. Truckee, California (also I- 80) and other lower elevations could see 5 to 10 inches. In some areas, wind gusts will reach 40 to 45 mph. Blowing snow could cause reduced visibility and whiteout conditions at times.

An extended period of snowfall will affect the Salt Lake City metropolitan area today through Thursday. The National Weather Service (NWS) has issued a winter storm warning for the Wasatch Mountains and adjacent valleys. The high elevations could get slammed with 12 to 24 inches of total snowfall, while the storm dumps 5 to 10 inches in the valleys and Park City. Parts of southwestern Wyoming could also see several inches of snowfall.

Impact on freight

The Salt Lake City market, based on the latest FreightWaves data in SONAR, has a decent outbound tender volume index value (OTVI.SLC). This means there’s freight available there. It’s the 17th-largest market in the nation, slipping two spots from Sunday to Monday. But overall, volumes have been increasing since the beginning of March.

The OTVI has a base value of 10,000 based on trucking volumes on March 1, 2018. The index moves in proportion to the total observable outbound tender volume in each of the 135 freight markets nationwide.

SONAR Tickers: OTVI.SLC, OTRI.SLC (left); SONAR Tickers: OTVI Map (right)

Because of the COVID-19 outbreak, panic buying and a rush of supply shipments to fight the virus have contributed to spikes in outbound freight in many markets. It has also led to big increases in outbound tender rejections – almost 35% in the Salt Lake market (OTRI.SLC). The rejection rate is the percentage of loads offered by shippers that carriers are turning down. In this case, it’s probably because they can’t handle the demand. So capacity is getting tight, and spot rates are likely far surpassing contract rates.

The weather out west over the next few days may strain capacity a bit more between Salt Lake City and the Sierra Nevada markets of Stockton and Fresno. Road closures and delays are likely from time to time on I-80 between these markets.

Severe thunderstorms

Strong thunderstorms will drop heavy rainfall in parts of the South today and this evening, including the number one freight market in the country – Atlanta. Isolated tornadoes, severe winds and large hail are possible in places such as Memphis, Tupelo, Nashville, Huntsville and Chattanooga.

SONAR Critical Events and radar: Tuesday, Mar. 24, 2020, 10 a.m. EDT; Severe thunderstorm threat

Have a great day! Please stay healthy and be careful out there!