Winter storms increasing volatility in western markets (with forecast video)

Tractor-trailer on Utah highway surrounded by snow-capped mountains.

A snowstorm slammed Utah on Monday, resulting in road closures and accidents on interstates and secondary routes.

The Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT) reported hundreds of crashes across the state. Gusty winds and whiteout conditions accompanied the heavy snowfall in some areas.

Salt Lake City received a record 8.6 inches for Feb. 3. The old record was 7 inches, set in 1936, and average snowfall for Feb. 3 is a little less than half an inch. An additional 5 to 10 inches of snowfall are likely Wednesday night through Thursday.

Impact on freight

Freight volumes from Salt Lake City are declining a bit, possibly because carriers knew the storm was coming and didn’t want to send drivers there. FreightWaves SONAR shows that outbound tender volumes (OTVI.SLC) dipped Monday to 128.05 index points in the Salt Lake City market, dropping the Headhaul score (HAUL.SLC) from 21.98 to 8.82. The Headhaul index is the difference between the amount of outbound and inbound volume for a particular market. A higher Headhaul score means more freight is leaving the market than is arriving. So there would be more available loads to pick up.

Carriers are starting to accept more freight from Salt Lake City but only if it’s going into dry vans (non-climate-controlled trailers). Outbound dry van tender rejection rates (VOTRI.SLC) bottomed out last weekend at 4.85% but have rebounded slightly to 5.13%. Low tender rejection rates for dry van equipment in the Salt Lake market are a result of excess capacity that has pushed spot market rates down near or below contracted rates. Rejection rate measures the percentage of loads offered by shippers that are turned down by carriers for any number of reasons.


The story is different for reefers, which are climate-controlled trailers. Drivers can set the temperature in order to protect certain items such as cosmetics, chemicals, water and beer from freezing. Outbound reefer tender rejection rates in Salt Lake City (ROTRI.SLC) jumped 397 basis points to 26.9% over the past few days, indicating spot market rates for refrigerated equipment are well above contracted rates and on the rise. Predicted additional snow showers the rest of this week could push reefer tender rejection rates higher, applying additional upward pressure to spot rates.

Shippers have responded by stretching tender lead times for reefer freight (ROTLT.SLC) to 4.24 days, just above the national average (ROTLT.USA) of 4.08 days. Lead time is the number of days between when a load is accepted by a carrier and when it is picked up. Lead times are normally expanded when shippers anticipate capacity issues and book their freight early to ensure a truck will arrive to pick up their load.

FreightWaves Market Expert Donny Gilbert said brokers should search for additional reefer freight in Salt Lake City on the spot market but increase bids accordingly since rejection rates are increasing and more snow is on the way. Gilbert also said dry van loads to Southern California will be popular. But with rejection rates so low, margins will be tight unless brokers can push carrier rates down.

Southern snow heading north

A rather narrow band of freezing rain and heavy snowfall will develop later Tuesday from western Texas to eastern Oklahoma, lasting through Wednesday afternoon. Totals of 4 to 8 inches will stretch from Midland-Odessa to Lubbock, Wichita Falls, Oklahoma City and Tulsa, along with possible light ice accumulation. Pockets of 8 to 12 inches of snowfall will be possible.

SONAR Critical Events and radar: Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020, 10 a.m. EST

This storm will affect sections of Interstates 20, 35, 40 and 44 in these cities. While a blizzard is not expected, these areas are not accustomed to this much snowfall at one time. Additionally, this will be a dramatic change from the recent unseasonable warmth and lack of wintry precipitation so far this season. There’s a good chance of road closures and lengthy delays.

Wednesday and Wednesday night, the snow and ice — along with some sleet — will spread across St. Louis, Chicago, Indianapolis and Detroit, as well as portions of Pennsylvania and New York state.

SONAR Critical Events and radar: Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020, 10 a.m. EST

The storm then moves into New England and the Canadian Maritime Provinces on Thursday. Significant icing is possible from the Poconos to the Catskills and Berkshires. Most of Interstate 95 in New England will be slick due to sleet changing to rain, as opposed to ice building up.

Northwest nuisance

Heavy snowfall will return later Tuesday to the Cascades and Olympics of Washington, the Cascades of northern Oregon and the Rockies of northern Idaho and western Montana. Snoqualmie, Lookout and Stevens passes could become trouble spots again for drivers as 12 inches or more pile up in some spots over the next couple days.

SONAR Critical Events and radar: Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020, 10 a.m. EST

Meanwhile, rainfall will soak the lower elevations of the Washington Cascades and the lowlands of western Washington Tuesday and Tuesday night. Snow levels initially will be low later Tuesday and Tuesday night — 1,500 to 2,000 feet in the Cascades and around 3,000 feet in the Olympics. By the end of the day Wednesday, levels will be 4,000 to 6,000 feet in the Cascades and 6,000 to 7,000 feet in the Olympics. This will likely result in slushy conditions in the high elevations. Heavy rainfall will also continue to drench the lower elevations, valleys and lowlands. River and creek levels could rise rapidly, increasing the threat of flooding, mudslides and landslides.

Have a great day, and be careful out there!