Editor’s note: We set out to understand how the Bangor region could grow its economy, and we’d like your help as we publish stories on the subject. Please visit the end of this page to answer a few questions to inform our reporting. Thank you.

Two decades ago, all of Hartt Transportation’s major customers were in the paper industry. That made Bangor the logical home base for a busy trucking company with lots of paper to haul out of state.

The 69-year-old company is still a busy trucking operation. But with none of the paper mills that lined the Penobscot River still operating, Hartt’s business has changed fundamentally.

Today, Hartt has more drivers based in Auburn than Bangor, and they’re more likely to haul Poland Spring water than Maine-made paper. Hartt’s 11-year-old Sumter, South Carolina, terminal is also busier than its Bangor headquarters.

“Our break room here used to be full of drivers,” Sales Director Ricky Hughes said recently at Hartt’s offices in Bangor’s Bomarc Industrial Park, off Essex Street. “It just isn’t now.”

What’s happened with Hartt Transportation’s business in recent years reflects how the Bangor region’s economy has changed.

Hartt and a handful of other large trucking companies maintain their headquarters in and around Bangor, a reflection of the region’s historic strength as a transportation hub. But to maintain their market position and grow, those companies have had to set their sights elsewhere. Generally, they’ve looked south.

Still, trucking remains a strength for the Bangor region’s economy. In 2016, the industry employed more than 1,200 people in Penobscot County at a median wage that exceeded the median wage for all jobs in the region.

Compared with the nation, the Bangor metropolitan area has a higher-than-average concentration of tractor-trailer truck drivers, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2015, Bangor ranked in the top quarter of U.S. metropolitan areas, 191 out of 917, for the proportion of its employment in trucking, according to the U.S. Cluster Mapping Project based at Harvard Business School.

Importantly for the region’s economy, the trucking companies based here largely provide a service that brings outside money into the Bangor area, which is what propels a regional economy to grow. By employment, trucking is the Bangor area’s largest export-oriented industry — meaning it sells a product or service to customers outside of the region. And since trucking exists to serve other businesses, it’s an export industry that demonstrates how well many of the area’s other export-oriented businesses are doing.

“We don’t start the economy, and we don’t end the economy,” said Steve Whitcomb, a veteran of H.O. Bouchard whose tenure at the Hampden-based trucking company has included stints overseeing maintenance and safety. “We’re a slice of it out of the middle, and we’re the purest barometer of how the economy’s doing.”

Transportation center

The Bangor region has a long history as a transportation center.

Its location at the foot of the North Woods and along the Penobscot River made it the logical place more than a century ago to receive freshly cut logs sent down the river, mill them and ship them out to market. Bangor was one of the first places in the U.S. to have a railroad. And the military’s conversion of Godfrey Field into Dow Air Force Base left the city with what today is Bangor International Airport — with a runway more than 11,000 feet long that can accommodate commercial jetliners and military aircraft.

As the transportation of wood moved from the Penobscot River onto roadways, and with the construction of Maine’s interstate highway system starting in the 1950s, Bangor’s penchant for transportation extended to trucking.

Hartt Transportation Systems Inc. started in Etna in 1948 with a single truck hauling gravel and pulpwood. It moved its headquarters to Bangor in 1981. The company started its shift to the south well before Penobscot County lost its last paper mills in 2015.

“When those places started to go down, we started to diversify,” Hughes said.

Hartt first opened an Auburn terminal in 2004, and it finished work on a new, $7 million terminal there in 2015. About 200 of the company’s 440 trucks are based there, Hughes said.

The Auburn terminal provides Hartt’s drivers with easier access to their largest customer today, Poland Spring, which has pumping and bottling operations in southern and western Maine. Hartt drivers haul most of the water — 80 to 120 truckloads a day, according to Hughes — out of state, with much of it bound for the New York metro area.

“We wouldn’t be where we are in that area without them,” Hughes said of Poland Spring.

Auburn is also closer than Bangor to some of Maine’s remaining paper mills, such as Catalyst Paper in Rumford. And when Hartt hauls consumer goods back into Maine, the Auburn terminal is within miles of Wal-Mart’s Lewiston distribution center.

Hartt opened its Sumter, South Carolina, terminal in 2006 to serve a manufacturing customer that also has operations in Auburn. Today, Hughes said, South Carolina is the home base for 175 to 200 of Hartt’s 440 trucks.

“We have to follow our customers around,” said Barry Pottle, president and CEO of Bangor-based Pottle’s Transportation. “When your customers all move out of the area, you have to follow them.”

For Pottle’s, that means the company’s Allentown, Pennsylvania, terminal — which is about 15 years old — is much busier than its Bangor operation. Allentown is in the heart of a region where major retailers, both brick-and-mortar and online, have been setting up and expanding distribution centers to supply the Northeast.

About 65 percent of Pottle’s drivers are based in Allentown. “Business is growing so much down there,” Pottle said. “There’s just so much more opportunity.”

While trucking employment remains significant in the Bangor region, employment figures from the past decade reflect this shift away from the Queen City.

Total employment at trucking firms — including drivers, maintenance staff, dispatchers and others — in Penobscot County dropped more than 29 percent between 2007 and 2016, to 1,245 from 1,763.

The industry’s total Bangor-region output shrank more than 17 percent between 2007 and 2014, to $106 million from $128 million, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, which adjusted the figures for inflation.

“The trucking firms will not stay if they don’t have demand for their services,” said David Closs, a professor in the Department of Supply Chain Management at Michigan State University’s Eli Broad College of Business. “There’s only demand for transportation if there’s demand for the goods that they’re hauling.”

For H.O. Bouchard in Hampden, that meant the company stopped hauling lumber in flat-bed trailers after the housing market collapsed a decade ago — and with it, the demand for lumber and construction materials.

“Your loads of lumber went from 50 a day to zero, and stayed at zero,” Whitcomb said. “Anybody with any head on their shoulders ought to find something else to do. We were significantly into the tanker world then, but that was our push to get more into it.”

Today, H.O. Bouchard’s specialty is in tanker trucks equipped for hauling heating fuels and liquid asphalt for road construction, as well in dry-bulk cement trailers for hauling cement powder.

The company’s headquarters, maintenance facility and truck yard on Cold Brook Road in Hampden remain H.O. Bouchard’s only company-owned facility, but its trucks are based wherever it makes most sense for serving customers — in midcoast Maine to pick up cement powder shipments and in southern Maine and New Hampshire to more easily supply southern New England road construction operations.

‘You don’t just pack up and move’

So, why do trucking companies stay headquartered in Bangor even if it’s not a growth market?

Part of the reason is geography, Whitcomb said. Bangor is at the intersection of important routes for serving northern New England and eastern Canada, he said. And much of the wood cut in northern Maine still travels through the Queen City.

Another reason is the history that made Bangor into a trucking hub.

“One of the beauties of Bangor is, all the truck dealers are right here,” Whitcomb said, referring to the area off Exit 180 from I-95, where Dysart’s Truck Stop and Restaurant as well as H.O. Bouchard set up shop in 1967 off what was then a newly constructed stretch of interstate highway. “Every truck manufacturer is represented at this intersection. It saves us on parts, inventory and purchases.”

Plus, Whitcomb said, “You don’t just pack up and move a business like this. The trucks can move. The work can move. The people are harder to move.”

That’s not to say a move out of the Bangor region is out of the realm of possibility for a trucking operation.

“We stay here flat out because the owner was born and raised here, and loves this state,” said Hughes, the sales director at Hartt Transportation. “But at the end of the day, we could move tomorrow to South Carolina plain and simple — take everything, go there, and the number we would save and put back in the company and put back in the employees is staggering.”

But a trucking company established in the Bangor region would be prepared to take advantage of a new business opportunity in the area. That’s why Hartt is closely watching developments in Lincoln, as Poland Spring prepares to pump water and potentially locate a bottling plant there. Lincoln Pulp and Paper was a major Hartt customer before that mill closed in 2015.

“When Poland said they were doing that [in Lincoln], I was like, ‘Yeah, all right, finally we get some business up here,’” said Dave Blake, who’s driven for Hartt for nine years and also serves as a driver mentor and trainer.

Poland Spring has said it will truck water it pumps from the Lincoln Water District to its existing Maine bottling plants. As for locating a bottling plant in the region, the company has said the availability of faster rail service would factor into its decision. In a statement, the company said it would use “the most efficient combination of transportation services” if it located a bottling plant in the Lincoln area.

More business, not always employment

It’s an open question whether greater demand for trucking will always translate into greater trucking employment. A number of companies are working on driverless trucking technology and have tested out autonomous trucks in the U.S. and Europe.

Closs, the supply chain management expert from Michigan State University, and Pottle, the Pottle’s Transportation CEO who also serves as the American Trucking Association’s second vice chairman, suspect that platooning technology debut in the U.S. before fully autonomous trucks.

With platooning technology, a handful of trucks connected to each other electronically can travel as a convoy, following a lead truck, and “the trailing five or six don’t need drivers,” Closs said.

Those arrangements — which would boost fuel efficiency for the trailing trucks — would work well on long-haul, interstate highway routes, he said.

“My personal opinion is a driverless truck going into Brooklyn with a trailer on the back and having to move around a car that’s illegally parked and a dock that’s too small, I just don’t see it,” said Hughes of Hartt Transportation. “I can see a truck getting onto I-95 in Bangor and getting off in Florida no problem.”

Short of autonomous driving, the trucking industry is already increasingly headed in an electronic direction.

Many firms have already begun using electronic driving logs to track driver hours in advance of the December deadline when the federal government will mandate that technology. And the newest trucks on the road have more and more automated features, including collision mitigation technology, which applies the brakes automatically if a truck gets too close to the vehicle ahead of it; electronic stability control to prevent rollovers; and blind-spot detection systems.

There are still a host of issues to resolve before autonomous driving could take over the industry, such as questions about whether the truck’s owner, a person in the vehicle or the autonomous driving technology developer would be liable in an accident.

Plus, while many have portrayed the technology as an existential threat to trucking employment, Closs points out that autonomous driving could help the trucking industry solve a perpetual nationwide problem: a shortage of drivers.

“The demand for drivers is very high because the desire for driving a truck is not particularly high,” he said. “The anticipation is, we’re short, for the next 10 years, 35,000 drivers a year.”

Maine Focus is a journalism and community engagement initiative at the Bangor Daily News. Questions? Write to mainefocus@bangordailynews.com.