Drayage from the Port of Anchorage
A vital piece of Alaska’s transportation logistics
The United Freight & Transport crew gathers outside its Anchorage headquarters. The company employs about forty-four people with a fleet of thirty-eight trucks designed to haul cargo for short distances.
Image courtesy of United Freight & Transport
Anyone wandering through a retail establishment piling a shopping cart high with Doritos, peaches, pilot bread, and peanut butter should take a minute to thank a trucker.
“They’re a very vital link in the supply chain,” says Aves Thompson, executive director of the Alaska Trucking Association. “You go to the store and you ask someone, ‘How do you suppose that got here?’ ‘I don’t know, I’m glad it’s here?’”
“We say, if you got it, a truck brought it.”
Nearly all of the items on Alaska’s retail shelves were likely touched by one particular type of transportation: drayage. Simply put, drayage is a specialized type of transport in which a trucking company moves containerized cargo from a port over a short distance—in this case to a business or warehouse. It can be a link in an intermodal transportation system or a direct line between the port and a retail store in south Anchorage.
The two main drayage companies in Anchorage are Weaver Brothers and United Freight & Transport, Thompson says. Companies such as Lynden and Carlile, as well as others that specialize in moving household goods will often pick up cargo at the port, but Weaver Brothers and United Freight are the only two companies with dedicated drayage operations. “We call them drayage because typically they deliver locally,” he says. “They pick up trailers and/or containers off the ships and deliver them either to their destination, which may be local, or to a consolidator or to a trucking terminal and from there be delivered. For example, United Freight might pick up a container that’s going to Span-Alaska. Span-Alaska might deliver that to Fairbanks or to Kenai or to the Valley.”
Frank Monfrey, general manager of United Freight & Transport, says the term drayage is today used to encompass any direct, short-haul freight deliveries. “Drayage is one of those terms that evolved over time,” Monfrey says. “That can mean simply taking it from Van Horn Road to the University of [Alaska] Fairbanks. Just across town. It’s a dray movement, it’s not a line-haul movement that would go from Anchorage to Fairbanks. Over-the-road trucking is another of the terms for that, none of which we do. I just do local. I work from Anchorage to Wasilla; occasionally I go to Kenai, but it’s very rare. I don’t go to Fairbanks. I’m not even equipped for it. Mine is all local, small-tractor stuff.”
Historically, a dray was a horse-drawn cart with no fixed sides that moved cargo short distances, typically from a harbor. Eventually trucks took over for horses and in recent years, as more cargo is shipped in containers, drayage has become a small but increasingly important link in the supply chain.
In Alaska, nearly all supplies arrive at the 125-acre Port of Anchorage, built in 1961. It is the single largest cargo-handling system in the state, responsible for 80 percent of all food, clothing, construction materials, and consumer goods shipped to Alaska, says Port of Anchorage External Affairs Director Jim Jager. Each week four container ships dock, each carrying about 600 containers of goods that are off-loaded from ships and distributed to communities and military bases throughout the state.
Containerized cargo is one of the port’s main revenue generators. (The other is refined petroleum products.) Unlike most ports in the Lower 48, nearly all the traffic through the Port of Anchorage is one-way. The state has virtually no exports, so while a cargo ship may have a deck full of containers as it’s heading south through Cook Inlet, they’re almost all empty. Meanwhile, the inbound cargo is being shuttled up and down Alaska’s limited road system, loaded aboard the Alaska Railroad for a trip to Fairbanks in the state’s vast Interior, or repacked en route to an airplane ride to a village in rural Alaska.
But the first step is to get the cargo out of the port.
The two major shippers, TOTE Maritime and Matson, usually contract directly with the drayage companies. Other retailers or construction supply companies may also have their own trucks that serve as drayage.
For incoming cargo, longshoremen do the actual unloading, moving the containers from the ship to the cargo yard. With so much freight coming in to one spot, there’s the potential for a major bottleneck. That’s where Weaver Brothers’ and United Freight & Transport’s decades of experience in Alaska come in to play. Part of their job is to circumvent potential bottlenecks.
One of United Freight & Transport's trucks which are used to haul freight short distances in and around Anchorage and in the Mat-Su Valley.
Image courtesy of United Freight & Transport
Weaver Brothers was started in Oregon in 1946 by Ken and Russ Weaver. They moved the company to Valdez by Crowley barge in 1953, growing their trucking services and expanding with a barge line. By the mid-1970s, the operation included terminals in Kenai, Anchorage, Fairbanks, Valdez, and Seattle and was headquartered in Anchorage. The Doyle family bought Weaver Brothers in 1978 and it is still family-owned today.
In the 1980s, only two drayage agents were authorized to work at the port, and Weaver Brothers was invited to be the third, says Jimmy Doyle, vice president. His father, Jim Doyle, is president and is still active in the company, as are several other family members.
Weaver Brothers operates several business sectors in Alaska, including fuel delivery; cement hauling and petroleum products; and general freight, as well as drayage. Jimmy Doyle estimates drayage is about one-quarter of the company’s business.
A Shift in the Industry
Since Weaver Brothers entered the drayage sector in the mid-1980s, the state has gone through major changes, which have had a big effect on the drayage business, Doyle says.
To start with, the population has risen in Southcentral Alaska, especially in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley region. With the increase in population came more national retail chains and restaurants resulting in heavy traffic that can clog local roads. “Two of the biggest things: the big box stores are here and they weren’t here to begin with,” Doyle says. “They take a lot of boxes, a lot of containers. And then in our business in Anchorage, specifically, a lot of the customers that used to be down close to the port have been moved out to the Dimond end, the south end of town. So delivery times take longer. You’ve got more traffic. I think those are two of the things that have impacted us quite a bit.”
In the 1990s and early 2000s, Alaska saw an explosion of big box retail outlets and national chains such as Walmart, Costco, Sam’s Club, Lowes, and Home Depot. And over the years, existing Alaska chains such as Fred Meyer, Safeway, Spenard Builders Supply, Sears, and Johnson’s Tire Service have all expanded as well.
“The other thing that has happened is less and less companies use distribution centers,” Doyle says. “They talk all the time about the fact that when the ships come in, they’re depending on us to give timely service. Everybody needs their containers as soon as they can get them, because you just don’t have the distribution centers like they used to have where you could go and get stuff like supplies or consumer goods. They expect us to be able to deliver right away. So you’ve got to have a good crew dispatch and a driver crew that understand priority shipments and getting them to the customer [safely] and the way they want them.”
Doyle says Weaver Brothers has about twenty-seven drivers and a couple of dispatchers in Anchorage. For freight that’s destined for Kenai or Fairbanks, Weaver Brothers also has a number of hostlers who distribute freight to customers. In Fairbanks, for instance, Weaver Brothers employs half a dozen drivers who take freight from the truck or railroad terminal to customers.
United Freight & Transport
United Freight & Transport has also been in the drayage business for decades. During that time, the business has changed and grown, says Monfrey. “I think the change is that we’ve obviously grown with the number of pieces of equipment that we need to do the job,” he says. “The change to the large box stores like Home Depot and Lowes and Fred Meyer’s huge expansion, etc., that’s changed the landscape dramatically for everyone, Fairbanks and Anchorage alike.”
Monfrey says the company is a sort of middleman. It has contracts with the two steamship carriers that serve Anchorage, Matson, and TOTE Maritime. The trailers are off-loaded and checked for safety before United Freight steps in. “I pick up trailers as a representative of [the steamship carriers] and deliver to their customers throughout the Anchorage and Wasilla regions,” Monfrey says.
Timing of delivery is important, he notes. The company employs forty-four people and has a fleet of thirty-eight tractor-trailers.
“In many cases we’re dealing with food, refrigerated and/or frozen, and the timing out of the port to the end user—Fred Meyer for example or Walmart grocery—is paramount,” he says. “We have to be out and delivered quickly so they can off-loaded and put on a shelf.”
For non-perishable items such as lumber, a timely delivery may mean the difference between a contractor meeting or missing a construction deadline.
Ships arrive on Sundays and Tuesdays. Monfrey says he doesn’t typically know exactly what is in each container, aside from broad categories such as food or general merchandise.
“We have to know what we know for [Department of Transportation] reasons, so we’re transporting correct placards,” he says.
Both Weaver Brothers and United Freight operate under a Teamster agreement, Local 959, which gives them port access. All of Monfrey’s employees, with the exception of a couple of staff members, are union employees, he says.
Drivers at both companies are highly trained and adhere to strict safety procedures.
“It is the policy of this company that no task is so important that employees must violate a safety rule or put themselves at risk of injury or illness in order to do their job,” says Weaver Brothers on its website.
Drayage is a pretty simple business, but it is a necessary part of the transportation chain, Monfrey says. “It has to get delivered. It’s just kind of what we do is make sure everybody has their trailers. We do it six days a week. We take Saturdays off, basically. It’s just what we do.”
As far as how those Doritos actually get into the shopping cart? Monfrey chuckles and says, ‘It’s magic.”
Julie Stricker is a journalist living near Fairbanks.