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Nation’s motor carriers at a crossroads, ATA president says

American Trucking Associations’ President and CEO Bill Graves Monday cited a dysfunctional federal government, including both sides of the aisle, as one of trucking’s major challenges. (The Trucker: LYNDON FINNEY)

By LYNDON FINNEY
The Trucker Staff

10/8/2012

LAS VEGAS — Yogi Berra may never have driven a big rig, but a famous saying of the New York Yankee Hall of Fame catcher gave American Trucking Associations President and CEO Bill Graves a perfect grand finale for his annual State of the Industry address during the opening session of the 2012 ATA Management Conference and Exhibition under way here.

“Yogi said that when you come to the fork in the road you should take it,” Graves told delegates. “He then went on to opine that if you don’t know which way you’re going, you‘ll probably end up someplace else.”

That someplace else is of great concern to Graves and the industry he leads as trucking tries to figure out just where today’s crossroads might lead.

“I honestly do believe that anyone who is operating in the trucking industry is at a crossroads — in fact you’re facing an entire series of crossroads — each one a decision point sending you in directions that will ultimately determine success or failure, profitability or loss, growth or stagnation,” Graves said.

There will be multiple paths forward on policies of federal and state government, but some will be cluttered with over-regulation and bureaucratic burdens, while others will provide smooth sailing through partnerships, communication and cooperation, the former  Republican Kansas governor said.

“You’ll be making many decisions about which technologies to embrace, knowing that as rapidly as new technology is being developed and made available, you will simply be unable to afford all of it, or to deploy it in a orderly manner, even if you could afford it,” Graves said, looking squarely in the eye of trucking executives from carriers of all sizes.

He then pointed to what some of those decisions might be.

“What decisions will you make about recruiting and retaining drivers? When all is said and done, how will CSA impact your operation and influence the customers you serve. And what influence will the actions of your competitors have on your decisions?” he asked rhetorically.

He cited two examples — a competitor that begins to pay by the hour and a competitor that embraces a fuel or power alternative that pays off.

The crossroads are the result of national issues, Graves said.

“Three of our nation’s biggest problems are the sluggish economy, a very dysfunctional federal government and the people of this nation who lack confidence that the economy will get better and that our government as it's currently assembled in Washington isn’t capable of getting the job done,” Graves said.

In looking at Washington’s challenges for trucking, Graves pointed to CSA, the federal government’s safety monitoring program as a prime example.

“We still believe that CSA is fundamentally the program that will make travel on the nation’s highways safer,” Graves said. “But it must be implemented and managed in such a way as to instill confidence with the industry that our ‘buy in’ to the program will make our companies stronger and not be penalized by inaccurate data or misrepresentation by the shipping community or the media.”

Graves also pointed to the administration’s pursuit of a new Hours of Service rule as another example of Washington providing a challenge to the trucking industry.

“[First] the he rule was working just fine,” he said, “and second I have no doubt that the changes were the result of political pressures brought to bear from the White House and not the result of FMCSA professionals believing that further change was necessary or could be justified.”

From a macro view, there’s a lot to be said for a solid future of the trucking industry, Graves believes.

Not so from the micro level, he said.

“From my vantage point as the head of ATA, I don’t think the industry itself is at a crossroads as much as each of you and your companies,” he said. “Both the essentiality of the industry and the demand for freight movement by truck — a growing demand for freight movement by truck — is unquestioned,” he told delegates.

“That’s to say that the long-term macro outlook for trucking has never been better, but the near-term micro view continues to be very challenging. It’s almost as if we‘re playing an industry game of “Survivor” trying to figure out who gets voted off the island and who has the skills, the smarts, the resources to win? And as much as some of you might get tired of hearing this, the crossroads you find yourself at has much to do with those carriers who are willing to embrace the change that confronts us or not. And more than likely those unwilling to embrace change will not survive.”

The conference continues through Wednesday.

The Trucker staff can be reached to comment on this article at editor@thetrucker.com.

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