The not seasonally adjusted index decreased 3.9 percent from January to 109.1.
The seasonally adjusted tonnage index remained at 117.2 (2000 = 100) in February, its highest level in more than two years. Tonnage increased 3.5 percent compared with February 2007, and marked the fourth consecutive year-over-year increase in the index.
ATA Chief Economist Bob Costello said February's reading was encouraging. "The fact that truck tonnage did not lose any of January's robust 2.4-percent gain is quite positive," he said.
Costello continues to forecast a mild recession for the overall economy during the first half of 2008. He noted, however, that truck tonnage typically leads general economic activity. Truck tonnage rebounded in 2001, for example, just as the aggregate economy was slipping into a recession.
"Perhaps we are seeing a repeat of the last recovery," Costello said. "But it is still too early to make that call, especially with energy prices at historic levels. There are just too many downside risks at the moment to say definitively that trucking is leading an economic recovery."
In an e-mail to investors, John Larkin, managing director of Stifel Nicolaus Transportation & Logistics Research Group, called the February figures "better than we would have expected, given the bleak anecdotes we have received recently from the trucking companies we follow. However, an indication that freight demand is showing the initial signs of recovery is consistent with our outlook for 2008. With truck tonnage now in positive territory, and with capacity continuing to exit the industry due to the margin pressure caused by record-high fuel prices and still-loose supply and demand, we continue to expect industry fundamentals to improve in [the second half of 2008] and that pricing leverage will begin to return to the carriers in 2009."
Trucking serves as a barometer of the U.S. economy because it represents nearly 70 percent of tonnage carried by all modes of domestic freight transportation, including manufactured and retail goods.
ATA calculates the tonnage index based on surveys from its membership and has been doing so since the 1970s. This is a preliminary figure and subject to change in the final report issued around the 10th day of the month. The report includes month-to-month and year-over-year results, relevant economic comparisons, and key financial indicators.