A variety of metrics indicate freight volumes continue to increase, with such increases generating more opportunities for trucking rate increases, according to experts.

The American Trucking Associations (ATA) noted that the trade group’s for-hire truck tonnage Index increased 1.5% in April after rising 0.6% in March. On top of that, the index is up 4.8% this April over the same month in 2013 – the largest year-over-year gain of 2014 – with year-to-date tonnage up 2.9% versus last year.

“April was the third straight gain in tonnage totaling 4%,” noted ATA Chief Economist Bob Costello, though he pointed out that for-hire tonnage is off 1.4% from the recent all-time high posted in November 2013.

“I’m pleased that tonnage has been making solid progress after falling a total of 5.2% in December [2013] and January [2014],” he added. “And April’s nice gain was better than the contraction in industrial production and the lackluster retail sales during the same month.” 

That kind of uptick in tonnage is also creating more opportunity for carriers to gain rate increases, according to analysis conducted by research firm FTR Transportation Intelligence.

FTR said its Shippers Conditions Index (SCI) for March remained basically unchanged from February at a reading of negative 8.7, reflecting what Jonathan Starks, FTR’s director of transportation analysis, described as “extremely tight capacity availability” for hauling goods.

In a statement, he said FTR currently expects the tight environment for shippers to moderate slightly in the coming months unless freight growth picks up as a result of a strengthening economy. With any additional improvement in freight tonnage, though, capacity could hit a critical stage forcing shippers to incur added purchased transportation costs. 

“Shippers learned that it doesn’t take much for a market that is operating with slim excess capacity to jump into the driver’s seat for rate increases,” Starks said. “The strong spot market rate increases seen during January, February, and March highlighted how quickly the environment can change on them.”

Starks pointed to productivity losses due to changes made to hours-of-service (HOS) rules for drivers back in July 2013 as one of the main reasons fueling the capacity shortage. “Add in the potential for further economic acceleration in 2014 and we find it very unlikely that shippers will be able to get the rate reductions that they achieved last year,” he said.

Overall, FTR now expects to see general rate increases of between 4% and 5% for the year for TL carriers, with national freight rate figures hitting 6% or higher versus 2013 by the middle this year.

Some of that “economic acceleration” may come for them rebound now occurring in the U.S. housing market, though Lindsey Piegza, chief economist for Wall Street firm Stern Agee, remains cautious on that front.

She noted in a recent research brief that housing starts rose a “whopping” 13.2% in April from 947,000 to a 1.07 million unit pace, based largely on the strength of multifamily starts, which rose nearly 40% to a 423,000 unit pace. Year-over-year, housing  starts are up 26.4%, driven by a 65% rise in multifamily starts, with single-family starts up 10% over the last 12 months, Piegza noted.

As a result, building permits also rose in April, up 8% from 1 million to a 1.08 million unit pace, with the strength again centered on the multifamily realm, up 20% from 400,000 to a 478,000 unit pace.

“Multifamily growth appears to be the driving force in much of the housing market at this point [though]  industry insiders are still cautious and remain concerned about the overall stability of the housing market,” Piegza added. “Among the concerns, rising home prices, which in many cases are squeezing out potential homebuyers.”

Yet optimism still seems to be gaining sway in many U.S. economic sectors, with small businesses in particular seeing a rebound in confidence regarding economic portents at least according to recent surveys.

The latest Wells Fargo/Gallup Small Business Index, for example, found that optimism among small business owners reached the highest level in six years in April, moving to a positive 47, which is up two points from January.

Future expectations are helping increase optimism, with the expectations score now at a positive 33, which is higher than at any point the since the start of 2008 though it is still well below pre-recession levels, said Lisa Stevens, head of the small business division at Wells Fargo and its Pacific Midwest regional banking president.

“The trend of business owners feeling more confident each quarter is a positive sign, yet the level of improvement we see today remains small, and we’re less than halfway between the lowest point in our survey’s 10-year history and the highest levels of business owner sentiment reached in 2006,” she noted. “These results are one more indicator that the recovery continues for small businesses.”