Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Biz Buzz: ‘Experts’ debate future of trucking

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The problem is highway capacity. And since Congress won’t raise fuel taxes (and since fuel taxes can’t keep up anymore), Poole would like to see the highway system modernized with long-term financing, paid for by dedicated tolls.
The problem is highway capacity. And since Congress won’t raise fuel taxes (and since fuel taxes can’t keep up anymore), Poole would like to see the highway system modernized with long-term financing, paid for by dedicated tolls.

I don’t blog, and I don’t religiously follow any blogs. But I do have a few trucking and transportation pages bookmarked, for those times when I’m pretending to be busy at my desk but don’t feel like doing real work. Journalists call surfing the Web ‘research.’

So I was doing some research the other day and came across a discussion with the heading, “What’s in Trucking’s Future?”

I found this on the National Journal Expert Blogs, modestly tagged “our panel of insiders discusses key issues.” Among the transportation blog insiders are a number of U.S. senators and representatives, a governor or two, once-and-future high ranking federal bureaucrats, academics, transportation-related trade association CEOs, labor leaders, etc. — a group that likely knows each other from sharing the witness panel table at congressional hearings. And with a long-term federal transportation spending plan being developed in both the House and Senate, there are plenty of chances for these experts to mingle.

The trucking topic evolved after the American Trucking Associations criticized Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood for repeatedly saying that DOT policy should be aimed at getting trucks off the roads. LaHood subsequently replied that trucking had nothing to worry about, everything would be fine, so let’s work together, etc. (Both the ATA and LaHood have blogs, by the way.)

Still, as reported in The Trucker June 1, the DOT’s latest 5-year plan does take aim at moving more freight by rail and water. So, what do the experts think about freight transportation and the future of trucking?

Bob Poole, director of Transportation Studies for the Reason Foundation, was the first to respond. “Responsible projections of future U.S. goods movement show large increases in truck traffic,” Poole writes. “However much federal policy may succeed in shifting marginal amounts of freight to short-sea shipping and rail, it will not change this fundamental fact. Most non-bulk freight goes by road for very sound business reasons: some combination of time, reliability, and cost that makes the best sense for those shipping and receiving the goods in question.”

The problem is highway capacity. And since Congress won’t raise fuel taxes (and since fuel taxes can’t keep up anymore), Poole would like to see the highway system modernized with long-term financing, paid for by dedicated tolls.

John Horsley, executive director for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, is all for a federal program to build and maintain highways, of course.

“Measured by value, 93 percent of the freight moved in this country — everything from the food we eat, to the fuel in our cars and the clothing on our backs — travels by commercial vehicle over Interstates, state routes and city streets,” Horsley writes. “Even with a shift of some cargo from long-haul trucks to rail and water intermodal service, the volume of freight on our highways is expected to more than double by 2050 to meet the need for goods that a population of 420 million people will demand.”

That makes two out of two who value trucking, and see it growing. Oops, spoke too soon.

Jacqueline Gillan, vice president with Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, says “nothing could be further from the truth,” in regard to trucking industry criticism of the DOT modal bias.

“Rather, the Department is attempting to provide a level playing field for the nation’s freight transportation system as a major component in a strategy to improve safety, promote energy efficiency, achieve clean air goals, preserve our infrastructure investments, and generally enhance our quality of life,” Gillan writes. “On average, about 5,000 people die annually in truck crashes and 90,000 more are injured at a cost to society of $41 billion. These staggering statistics on deaths, injuries and societal costs cannot be ignored in developing a rational and balanced transportation system that advances our economic well-being as well as our health and safety.”

The DOT emphasis on “livability,” she argues, is a step in the right direction.

ATA President and CEO Bill Graves, a frequent contributor to these discussions, had to jump in on this one, albeit with his typically tempered and politically savvy style and truckload of statistics — most notably, that “at least 80 percent of U.S. communities receive their goods exclusively by truck.”

“As we consider the future of U.S. freight transportation, it is paramount that we understand the unique characteristics of each mode and the role it plays in the supply chain,” Graves writes. “Television commercials do not dictate how the market chooses its mode of shipping and we cannot simply shift freight from one mode to another as a substitute for infrastructure investment.”

(Coincidentally — or maybe not — the advertisement on the page when I viewed it was for Freightrailworks.org, by the Association of American Railroads.)

Robert Puentes, senior fellow and director of the Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative, takes a big picture view.

“We need to get beyond the question of whether there is a future for trucking in the U.S. The question is what we want the American economy to look like,” Puentes writes, also suggesting that it’s time to get serious about reducing carbon emissions in transportation. “An innovation-fuelled infrastructure policy needs to make quantum leaps on everything from clean technology and renewable energy to transportation and smart grid creation. The question is not whether trucking will be part of America’s future but, rather, how trucking will contribute to the transition to the next American economy.”

So what does all this mean — or why should we care what these folks are thinking? As I mentioned, these are the people Congress calls on to help develop federal transportation policy. (I know there are more than few of our readers who don’t think too highly of ATA — but I can say this: trucking’s ill-informed critics would have a field day in Washington without them.)

And most obviously missing from these discussions are the frontline working men and women of the industry. Of course, you can always share your thoughts through our Facebook page (just click on the link at the end of our stories on thetrucker.com). More importantly, make sure your elected representatives understand how important your job is — not just for you and your family, but for your country.

The future of trucking will depend on decisions Congress is making right now, so speak up.   

Kevin Jones of The Trucker staff can be reached for comment at kevinj@thetrucker.com.

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