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ATA's Graves: Trucking in 'sweet spot' of freight movement

ATA President and CEO Bill Graves said trucking was as important as any aspect of the economy because it serves at the economic circulatory system — the link between all the other critical elements necessary for economic growth. (The Trucker: CLIFF ABBOTT)

The Trucker Staff


ORLANDO, Fla.  — Calling trucking the “core building block in the economic foundation of America,” the chief executive of the American Trucking Associations Monday said the biggest obstacle to the success of the industry was the industry itself.

After walking on stage to Bob Dylan’s 1964 hit, “The Times They Are a Changin,’” and calling out the Washington establishment and the rail industry, ATA President and CEO Bill Graves told an audience of more than 2,000 at the organization’s Management Conference and Exhibition here that the biggest challenge the trucking industry faced would come from the “incredible diversity and the easily fragmented constituency that we are.”

The ATA, trucking’s primary lobby on Capitol Hill, seeks to blend together “the power and energy that this diverse group of truckers has in such a way that we can continue to effectuate change that is good for the industry and good for America,” Graves said.

“We stand along with working men and women, the entrepreneurs who are willing to put capital at risk, with plants and equipment, energy, water, chemicals — all the fundamental elements that make up the economy,” he said in his annual “State of the Industry” address.

Graves said trucking was as important as any aspect of the economy because it serves at the economic circulatory system — the link between all the other critical elements necessary for economic growth.

“And while all those elements are important, without trucking’s ability to join them together in one place, business as we know it would simply not happen,” he said.

He cited change as inevitable and said that those who foresee it, plan for it and use it to their advantage would be the winners.

“Change is constant,” he said, “and is something we all deal with in every aspect of our lives. But deciding on whether change is good or bad is like making determination about beauty. It is truly in the eye of the beholder.”

Graves noted that the trucking industry in large part is shaped by the policy and regulations of the sitting president, their administration, by Congress and by state governments and in particular criticized the stalemate atmosphere that prevails among lawmakers.

“Not only has Washington’s recent public policy meltdown on the budget and the debt ceiling exposed the bitter, sharp (actually hateful) division between Republicans and Democrats, what’s most alarming is the collapse of the Republican Party itself and the emergence of the conservative wing of the party, most often referred to as the Tea Party, and its emergence as a very corrosive force,” he said.

“Don’t get me wrong — while it’s appropriate, and there is certainly merit in advocating for reduced government spending, smaller government, reducing our debt, limiting regulations and controlling the reach and intrusive nature of the federal government — insisting on having things their way, without a hint of willingness to compromise and threatening to ‘burn the house down’ otherwise, is a combination of foolish, ill-advised, reckless and detrimental actions to the future of this country.”

Compromise, Graves said, must be at the heart of all the federal government does, or the country runs the risk of continually fighting and re-fighting battles brought about by one political party feeling “run over” and victimized by the other.

“We are certainly seeing evidence of the Democrats’ handling of the Affordable Care Act in the vitriolic reaction many Republicans are having to it — a reaction that recent elements of the program's roll-out seems to justify,” Graves, a former two-term Republican governor of Kansas, said. “If I was your political broker, my advice would be that you sell your Republican shares and buy the Democrats.”

Graves also talked about the necessity to change, specifically to increase, the fuel tax to address the nation’s infrastructure needs, citing recent comments by former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood — once an opponent of raising the tax — advocating a tax hike.

“Our position in support of a fuel tax increase is absolutely the right position to take – and everyone on Capitol Hill knows it – they all know it,” he said. “Ray LaHood always knew it, the President knows it, every member of Congress knows it; we’re just fighting the plague of intellectual amnesia that’s overwhelmed Washington on this and so many other issues.”

Graves also cited coming changes that will have a positive impact on trucking: improved fuel efficiency standards; electronic logging; creation of a drug and alcohol testing clearinghouse;  and increased use of natural gas to power trucks.

There are also changes whose impact is much less certain: the new Hours of Service rules, the expansion of CSA and pressures on capacity and the driver shortage.

Graves took the opportunity to take a jab at the ubiquitous “Freight Rail Works” campaign, saying that “if it works so well, why does it require a $100 million ad campaign to tell everyone it works?”

And if it works so well, he opined, “Why is rail carload tonnage less than 14 percent of this nation’s total tonnage and on its way down to 12.5 percent? And if it’s working so well, why do trucks collect $642 billion of freight revenue and the railroads collect $72 billion? How well will it work when the required average length of freight movement drops significantly from where it is today, as the population grows and consumer demand and supply chain expectations change — and insist on quicker delivery times? Trucking is sitting right in the middle of this nation’s economic sweet spot. More people wanting more stuff and wanting is more quickly all the time.”

The organization’s annual meeting continues through Tuesday.


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