ATA's Bill Graves Compares Trucking Industry to a Phoenix


Comparing the trucking industry to a Phoenix, a mythical bird that is being reborn in its own ashes, American Trucking Associations President and CEO Bill Graves introduced his outlook on the industry's state during ATA's annual management conference this week.

Graves said in the last couple of years, the trucking industry experienced the worst recession in most of their lifetimes, political gridlock has delayed the nation's democratic process to a snail's pace, resulting to monumental unrest by the citizens – many of whom are outraged and not going to take it anymore. He also said that the recommended "activist policy and regulatory agenda in Washington is rocking the entire U.S/ business community back on its heels. All this positions us for our own phoenix type of moment."

Admittedly, he said it is uncertain when that will happen. "The timing of that moment has been speculated about for a good portion of this year, and now seems destined to be sometime in 2011. But rest assured: Once our rise from the ashes is under way, we will have something positive to look forward to."

Graves said: "The industry will re-emerge during some of the most significant changing times confronting trucking since the deregulation days of the early '80s." This is one thing he is certain about.

Graves enumerated a list of issues that they are expected to manage their way through, which said to be greater than at any time in the history of trucking. The issues are as follows: CSA 2010, fuel efficiency standards, electronic logging, an undetermined way to pay for infrastructure improvements, hours of service, continued attack on the independent contractor model, a transitional time of shifting to alternative power and fuel for their trucks, pressure to change the manner in which drivers are paid, and how trucking industry will adapt to the country's increasing need for freight capacity.

Politicians in Washington, D.C., didn't escape Graves' criticism – for putting political advantage ahead of the nation's needs, especially when it comes to addressing highway infrastructure.

He quoted President Obama's Labor Day call for a burst of investing on transportation infrastructure projects, utilizing a $50 billion infrastructure bank. In steamrolling that idea, the president said, "There's no reason we can't do this; all we need is the political will."

Political expediency is the reason why it can't be done, according to Graves."The political will that's needed to get this done is stuck in a bottleneck," he said, an old-fashioned political bottleneck that is the result of both political parties pandering shamelessly to voters - selling the notion that one of the nation's most pressing problems, one of the key elements of our nation's ability to be economically competitive with the rest of the world, can be solved by 'thinking outside the box' or by using 'creative financing.'"

According to Graves, the politicians made it clear that acquiring votes is more important than addressing the issue. Politicians are shying away to address the hard question on how to spend for it.

Graves said that you need money to build a world-class infrastructure. That roads are not free and they don't come cheap.
For those who admonish privatization as the answer to the problem, Graves had nothing for them but harsh words, because privatization means toll collections.

"Tolling is nowhere close to being as economically efficient as the tried and true, old fashioned fuel tax. To my Republican friends I say, 'Tolling is not the conservative solution for building roads and bridges.'"

Although the $50 billion infrastructure plan of the Obama administration has everything to do with the upcoming elections, Graves explained that because of the concentration on adding much-needed jobs to the economy, "it's certainly not completely without merit."

"Regardless of what happens at the polls, the proposal keeps the importance of national investment in infrastructure before the American public and offers us a glimpse at one of the financing mechanisms being considered - a national infrastructure bank. As an initial step by the administration toward a long-overdue, comprehensive six-year plan, it's part of a continuing, lengthy dialogue that ATA stays very involved in," Graves went on.

Here are other trends, emphasized by Graves during his address, ATA is watching:

  • Port of Los Angeles' ban on owner-operators. "It is critically important that local units of government not be allowed to dictate the flow of commerce on a whim."

  • Legislation targeted at advocating the use of natural gas in trucks. Graves recently had a chance talk with T. Boone Pickens, who is pushing conversion of the nation's truck fleet to locally produced natural gas in an attempt to decrease U.S. reliance on foreign oil. "While we may have different perspectives on the efficacy of this initiative or the timing of the transition, it's something we need to watch closely and understand," Graves said.

While Graves' speech was publicized as the "State of the Industry" address; he admittedly said, "figuring out how to describe that has been difficult. In all my travels and all my conversations, I have yet to find any consensus on what our condition is. I can only say that the state of the industry is best described like beauty - right now, it's truly in the eyes of the beholder."