PAT Thomas, chairman of the American Trucking Associations (ATA), pushed for a unified voice in his “State of the Trucking Industry” presentation during the National Tank Truck Carriers 68th Annual Conference, saying it’s the most effective way to get the attention of the political machine.

“I’d love to tell you it’s a lot different today in Washington DC than it is every year, but frankly, it’s not considerably different,” he said. “It’s tough to get things done there, and it takes a great deal of effort, and it takes folks coming together and speaking with one unified voice in order to make things happen. When we splinter our groups and have different views on things and we’re walking from one Congress member’s office to another, we damage our ability to get things done.

“The real strength of what we do as an industry is to take all the various parts of this federation—whether it’s a state trucking association or other groups—and bring ourselves together and speak as one voice. That’s incredibly important in what we do in Washington. Numbers matter to me. I’d love to tell you that every member of Congress sits down every night and says, ‘What do you think is the right thing to do on this?’ What they really do is sit down and say, ‘Who’s putting the most heat on us today to do the thing that I probably agree with?’ And so we’re going to give that a little more consideration.”

He lauded NTTC for working with ATA to get things accomplished and said he looks forward to increasing that collaboration.

ATA’s advocacy success in 2015:

•  $305 billion, five-year Highway Transportation Bill. “The priority was to get a highway bill. Between the last long-term highway bill and this bill, we had 32 kick-the-can-down-the-road funding proposals. We didn’t have a highway bill. We extended it 90 days, six months, but didn’t have a bill. They call it a ‘continuing resolution.’ We finally had a bill last year, in large measure due to the insistence of Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA) to get the bill done, and we’re grateful for that. We got a little bit of an increase in the funding mechanism.”

•  Real focus on freight. “For the first time, there was a real focus on freight, with money allocated.”

•  CSA reform. “There was some CSA reform where we couldn’t get FMCSA to agree that there was a problem, so we got Congress to tell them, and now they are going to go back and work on a number of things.”

•  Tolling. “We hoped to eliminate all of the tolling proposals that had been put in place, specifically three pilot programs. Much to our surprise, there were folks that actually wanted to double the three to six, so we had to change strategy just a little.”

•  Younger veterans. “We got a small provision that will allow us to do pilot projects with active or retired military folks between 18 and 20 years old.”

ATA’s legislative success in 2015:

•  Hours of Service. “Continued relief. We thought at the time we had the perfect solution: They were going to do a study and there were four hurdles they had to get across to re-implement HOS provisions we had stopped earlier. Unfortunately, there was a drafting error and they’re working to fix it. But we did make FMCSA show their work on research they had done on safety and driver health. We think the HOS restart provisions where they have to have off between 1 and 5 is just not well-thought-through, so we’re still optimistic about fixing that.”

•  Tax extenders. “There are things many companies can use: accelerated write-off on new equipment and additional relief.”

ATA’s regulatory success in 2015:

•  Final ELD rule. “As you know, there’s now a lawsuit pending, so we’ll see what happens there.”

•  Final driver coercion rule.

•  Final Electronic Stability rule.

•  Random drug testing cut in half to 25% after three-year low.

•  Wetlines withdrawal.

“Washington’s a little like a soap opera,” Thomas said. “You can watch it for a while, turn it off for several years, and you turn it back on and you haven’t missed much. The reality is, when the framers established this country, they did actually put in place a system that makes it hard to pass a law. They did that with intention. It should be hard to pass a law. But I don’t know if it should be as hard as it is, especially common-sense things we need to do. I’ve often said common sense is a flower that doesn’t grow in everybody’s garden.”

The top industry issues for 2015:

•  HOS. “It is a huge issue. We try to tell the members that we design our businesses around our ability to drive a certain amount of miles because we can work a certain amount of hours. That’s where we put distribution centers and how we design our systems. To arbitrarily change HOS on a regular basis is really bad for our industry. They sometimes look at you like, ‘Really? I’ve never thought that.’ HOS continues to be a problem.”

•  CSA. “It has been at the top or near the top of the list since ATA started doing the top industry issues survey.”

•  Driver shortage.

•  Driver retention.

•  Truck parking.

•  ELD mandate.

•  Driver health and wellness.

•  Economy. “It’s always an issue and continues to be—1% growth is absolutely anemic.”

•  Transportation infrastructure/congestion/funding. “The cost of congestion to this industry is $49 billion a year wasted, sitting in traffic because we haven’t done what we need to do to keep the infrastructure up with the economy. And by the way, the amount of freight we’re going to haul in the next two decades is going to increase substantially. So that is going to make it exponentially worse unless we make some changes.”

•  Driver distraction.

Thomas said the Strategic Action Committee’s long-term priorities for 2016 are:

•  HOS correction. “We’re working hard on it every day.”

•  FAA authorization clarifying preemption of rates, routes, and services for interstate commerce.

•  Truck driving as a national in-demand occupation. “We’re trying to raise the awareness of what it’s like to work in the trucking industry.”

•  FMCSA’s DOD-CDL streamlining efforts. “We’ve had great success in streamlining the process for people exciting the military and being able to use the experience they gained in the military while driving similar equipment. And to parlay that over to the CDL as seamlessly as possible.”

•  Graduated CDL for 18-20 year olds. “In most places in this country today, 18-year-olds can drive an 80,000-pound truck all over the state. They just can’t cross that arbitrary state line. That is kind of silly if you’re really talking about what makes safe or unsafe drivers. We said we should do a pilot program, and collect some data. Put some people in there with very special controls and see how it works.”

•  Protect the independent contractor model. “That’s a very significant thing ATA works on.”

•  Long-term stable and sufficient funding for the Highway Trust Fund. “Believe it or not, there has been money already allocated by the federal government—$95 million—to begin now to think about what the source of funding will be once the FAST Act expires. That’s a good thing. The funding source we have today is not sustainable. We didn’t get any landmark new funding mechanism in this bill. It was a little smoke and mirrors over here, and this and that. We were able to retain the user-pays concept. We think it’s important that users of the roads pay for the roads, but we have to do something there. It has to be new and creative, and it’s going to take a lot of people sitting at the table talking. We’re happy to see they’re doing that already.”

•  Emerging safety technologies.

•  Monitoring and management technologies designed to improve fleet and individual safety performance.

Thomas said workforce shortages continue to plague the industry. An estimated 175,000 truck drivers are needed by 2024, 67,000 technicians are needed by 2022, and 75,000 diesel mechanics by 2022.

“It gets considerably worse as we move forward,” Thomas said. “The shortage is real. Is it crippling the economy? No, but it is real. We’ve had a little bit of a downturn, so pressure has been taken off the capacity problem. But the capacity issue will rise again. We know that. So we’ve got to be able to do something.

“We have a workforce shortage, not a driver shortage. It is a bit of a universal problem, but it’s not going to be a universal fix. I don’t think there’s a silver bullet to fix the driver or the technician or the mechanic shortage. I think it depends on what kind of operation you run and where you are in the country. Lots of fleets already are experimenting with a lot of these things. Working on different pay models. Working on redoing their networks so people get home more often. Working on different kinds of equipment. I think the answer is most people believe it’s going to be a combination of a lot of those kinds of things—individualized to your industry, your segment of the business, and your fleet.

“Retirements and industry growth are the bulk of the problem. But one statistic is that 94% of truck drivers are men. We have not done a good job of recruiting women. It’s a job they’re fully capable of doing. So that’s one area we ought to take a look at.”   ♦

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