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In 2016, Tropical Shipping embarked on an inland transport Continuous Improvement project that’s saved millions and reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 17,000 metric tons.

In 2016, Dave Hearl and Van Kent had an idea.

“Our teams are always looking for ways to reduce costs,” said Kent, vice president of Customer Service, Inland Transportation, Traffic, and Continuous Improvement for Tropical Shipping. “During one of our brainstorming sessions, Dave (Hearl) and I discussed the idea of using Florida’s Turnpike to run double 40-foot containers back and forth between our Miami warehouse and the Port of Palm Beach.”

By using the Turnpike, he explained, a single truck and driver could pull two containers, eliminating the cost of an additional truck and driver and circumventing the federal law that prohibits double tandem combinations of more than 28 feet on federal interstate highways.

Hearl and Kent began working with Tropical’s equipment department to develop a design for the double-tandem chassis needed for the project.

“We had them built, applied for the tandem doubles permits, and hired a third-party company to train our drivers to obtain their Longer Combination Vehicle (LCV) certifications,” said Hearl, Tropical’s director of Inland Transportation. “Since then, Dennis Thies, our trucking dispatch manager, has become certified to teach new drivers how to pull double 40-foot container combinations and continues to certify drivers today.”

Turnpike travail

Tropical Shipping sent its first 40-foot double container combination down Florida’s Turnpike in June of 2017.

“As with any new process, we had our challenges,” said Kent.

At the time, LVCs weren’t allowed to exit off the Turnpike. All trailer combinations were required to stop at one of seven staging lots where they would be “decoupled” and then transported away one at a time to their destinations.

“So even though we were saving money, it took time for drivers to break down the trailer combinations and transport each one separately to its destination,” he said. “We’d made progress, but we always strive to be better, and we wanted to improve driver productivity and efficiency, which would make the savings even greater.”

The next step, according to Kent, was to lobby the State of Florida and the Florida Department of Transportation to obtain permits to exit off the Florida Turnpike System and transport containers directly to and from the Port of Palm Beach and Tropical’s warehouses in Medley, Florida, near Miami, eliminating the staging lots.

“It was a major endeavor, as it had never been allowed before the State of Florida,” said Kent.

Never allowed before in Florida, but Hearl and Kent soon discovered other states allowed LCVs of up to 48 feet long to exit off their turnpike systems. Specifically, Hearl found that in 2015, the State of Indiana began allowing trucks to pull double 48-foot trailer combinations on its state highways, as far as 15 miles off their turnpike systems.

“We got more information on what Indiana was doing, specifically what the new law allowed,” Hearl said. “I contacted the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) to see if they were open to discussing a similar initiative.”

After several discussions, FDOT scheduled a hearing for interested parties.

Hearl and Kent enlisted the help of Dennis Thies and Intermodal Manager Robert McHugh, who both have more than 20 years of inland transportation experience, to develop a presentation with the goal of gaining approval to exit off Florida’s Turnpike with 40-foot double containers in tow in both Medley and at the Port of Palm Beach to improve driver efficiency during the 160-mile roundtrip.

On the day of the hearing, representatives from Amazon and FedEx were also present to speak on behalf of a similar goal.

“These representatives proceeded to make their case for wanting to pull double 53-foot containers and were quickly informed by the FDOT director that it wasn’t going to happen,” said Kent. “Neither had any sort of presentation—they just spoke. Then it was our turn.”

Hearl and Kent passed out handouts and proceeded to give a PowerPoint presentation highlighting that, with a permit to exit the Turnpike, Tropical would save time, running more routes on any given day and, in turn, increasing the state’s toll revenue.

“In addition, we told them we’d be able to reduce CO2 greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 3,484 metric tons annually by using only one truck instead of two trucks for roundtrips,” said Kent.

The third pillar of the presentation addressed safety.

“We pointed out that the B-train chassis is much safer than traditional double chassis because there’s no ‘dolly’ that connects the two trailers, eliminating the unsafe ‘wiggle’ you see on other double-combination trucks on the road.”

During the months that followed, Hearl served as FDOT’s point of contact.

“They required a lot of additional information—drawings of the chassis, pictures of where we would exit the Turnpike with our containers, engineering surveys of all the roads we would travel on and bridges we would cross, including all the weight and dimensions,” he said. “(FDOT) supplied the turning radius calculations we would have to meet upon exiting the Turnpike to ensure there would be sufficient room for our trucks to turn.”

Tropical’s survey engineer checked the calculations on each exit and roadway to confirm the company could meet the FDOT requirement.

“It was a slow process, but on March 13, 2019, nearly two years after our initial hearing, we received the news that Tropical Shipping would be the first trucking company in Florida to be issued special route permits to exit off of Florida’s Turnpike.”

From left to right: Bob McHugh, David Hearl, Van Kent, and Dennis Thies. Each wears a green reflective vest, they stand between a double trailer.
From left to right: Bob McHugh, David Hearl, Van Kent, and Dennis Thies.

On-time achievements

 Tropical has been pulling double trailer combinations for six years now. For nearly four of those years, drivers have been permitted to pull off the Turnpike and drive their combinations directly to their destinations in Miami and Palm Beach. As a result, Tropical has achieved more than $6.7 million in savings and reduced more than 17,000 metric tons of CO2 greenhouse gas emissions.

“I give Dave Hearl full credit for taking ownership of this project and following through until implementation,” said Kent. “It took quite some time to work through the FDOT and later the Florida licensing board to get approval, but ultimately, we proved successful. Today, Dave works closely with our trucking department and the operations team in Medley to ensure that we maximize our cost savings through this program.”

 Looking back, Kent said one of the often-overlooked ‘wins’ of the initiative is how it maximized Tropical’s pool of trained drivers to deliver containers to the port more quickly.

“On-time (ship) departure is critical for us, as it’s one of our key objectives and a differentiator between us and our competition. We’re committed to delivering on time to the islands we serve.”

Kent encourages his fellow business leaders to prioritize time to brainstorm new and innovative ways to improve.

Continuous Improvement (CI) should be a priority in any industry, and it’s extremely relevant in ours. Sometimes you find something different to implement or correct, and other times you may find that what you are currently doing is the best method.”

Kent cited a project undertaken by Tropical five years ago to improve the company’s on-time ship departures.

“We looked at every component and department involved in getting containers to the Port on time,” he explained. “Every group evaluated their processes and how they could improve. Two years ago, and again now, we are looking at the same objective. You can always improve on your processes to get better, no matter how many times you look at something.”

He also explained the importance of cross-functional teams.

“We’ve had some very successful CI teams throughout Tropical, including in accounting, operations, vessels, and our warehouses. One of the key insights we have had with CI is that by having cross-functional teams, employees build relationships with people in other departments, which can be beneficial later when you need help. In the end, connecting our employees has helped us become a better company just as much—or more—as connecting our trailers.

Hilary Reeves

Hilary Reeves spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining the Saltchuk family of companies as a consultant. Since People of Saltchuk launched in 2014, Reeves has interviewed more than 200 Saltchuk employees from operating companies all over the world. Born in Tacoma, Washington, Reeves is a former president of both the collegiate and local professional chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists, a graduate of the Society’s Ted Scripps Leadership Institute, and a Toastmaster. When she’s not writing, she loves to read, ski, and practice the piano. She lives in West Seattle with her husband and two young daughters.