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The state of trucking

ATA President & CEO Chris Spear talks about the current state of the industry at the ATA Economic Summit.

Speaking at the American Trucking Associations’ (ATA) 2nd Annual Economic Summit on Thursday in Washington, DC, ATA President & CEO Chris Spear touted the accomplishments of the association and gains made under the Republican administration, but told attendees now is not the time to become complacent but rather a time to become even more engaged.

“There are still some issues that need to be cleaned up,” Spear told the room filled with trucking executives. “This is the time to make a difference. This is the time to get engaged.”

Spear started his luncheon speech at the Westin Georgetown by noting how trucking has benefited from the Trump tax cuts, including that a survey of ATA members found that 51% of them invested in their employees as a result of the tax change.

“We were very instrumental as an industry in [taking up and pushing] for tax reform,” Spear noted. “Keep in mind that this was the first major tax reform in 30 years … and we needed it to create a framework for long-term growth.”

Spear said the tax reform package resulted in “$3.6 billion, conservatively, given back to our industry.” The investment back into the industry was the reason that President Donald Trump touted trucking during his tax reform events.

“The president could have chosen anyone from Wall Street and we know what they would do, give it in bonuses, but [invest in employees and equipment].”

Spear also talked up the “partnership” trucking has with Trump and the Republican leadership and suggested that was one of the reasons trucking has made advances in Washington circles, however, he said more work needs to be done for the long-term health of the industry.

Among those efforts is more workforce development. ATA convened a Workforce Development Policy Committee, chaired by John Smith of CRST, that has made recommendations.

An apprenticeship program, announced by Labor Secretary Alex Acosta earlier this year, is a more near-term solution. These efforts are part of the regulatory “underbrush” that Spear said needs to be cleaned up.

“As times are good and we see these problems, now is the time to correct them,” he said.
Transitioning military members into trucking and fixing a broken CDL licensing program are other priorities.

“We’ve very encouraged by the direction [of the military hiring initiative],” Spear said. “There is a lot of talent in our military and they already know how to drive.”

Beyond getting military members certified, Spear said trucking companies who run CDL training schools are having trouble as some states do not recognize students trained in other states. Students are required to get their CDL in their home state.

That played directly into his next headwind for the industry – a growing patchwork of state regulations as states look to fill gaps where the federal government has fallen behind.

“We need leadership, we need a federal government that stands up for interstate commerce,” he said.

Spear also pushed for approval of the DRIVE-SAFE Act, which would authorize 18-20-year-olds to drive Class 8 vehicles interstate, something that is currently banned. Showing some frustration on the topic, Spear noted that 48 states currently allow 18-20-year-olds to drive Class 8, 80,000-pound vehicles intrastate.

The DRIVE-SAFE Act would call for 400 hours of training and an additional 200 hours of in-cab mentoring, Spear said, as well as additional requirements for safety technologies to be installed on vehicles and governors capping speed at 65 mph.

“Yet I hear day after day from safety advocates that [this is dangerous],” he lamented. “But where were these safety advocates when 48 states made it legal for an 18-year-old to drive within their states. Where were they then?

“I think the legislation is good [for everyone],” Spear added.

Turning to several other topics, Spear noted support for a revised NAFTA that works for the U.S., Canada and Mexico, and pointed out that Bob Costello, chief economist for ATA, has been closely watching and actively involved in representing the industry’s interests.

Noting that trucking hauls 76% of all NAFTA freight, Spear said it is important that trucking is involved “because who’s going to feel the impact first? It’s us, because we move the freight.”

Spear also revived ATA’s Build America Fund proposal that calls for a 20-cent per gallon fuel tax increase over 4 years, deposited directly into the Highway Trust Fund. Federal fuel taxes haven’t increased since 1993.

“If we had indexed it, we wouldn’t be having this discussion today,” he said, adding that ATA’s proposal is the “most conservative” proposal on the table.

“This is immediate,” Spear said. “You hit the button on 20 cents over 4 years, that’s immediate to the Highway Trust Fund – a Trust Fund that is going dry in 2 years. And it doesn’t add a single cent to the deficit. That is the most conservative idea out there. It costs 1 cent to administer. Tolls costs 35 cents to administer; that’s not conservative.”

Spear also talked about how the elimination of earmarks (which legislators used to get infrastructure projects in their home states in exchange for support on other bills) and the current political environment where simple majority rule passes bills as opposed to larger 60-vote thresholds in the Senate has created a difficult path to get legislation done.

“All of these ingredients have created the environment we have to navigate,” he said. “It’s neither good nor bad, just the environment we are in.”

Spear also briefly mentioned ELDs and the need for flexibility in hours-of-service rules, autonomous vehicles and why he sees drivers continuing to play an important role as autonomous technologies become “driver assist” technologies and closed with his thoughts on the FAA Reauthorization bill expected to be discussed in the Senate in the next few weeks. That bill has an amendment that would not allow states to set their own meal and rest break rules for interstate truck drivers. A similar provision – the Denham Amendment – exists in the House.

“This is not the United States of California,” Spear said. “In two weeks, we will know whether we will win or lose. If we are not successful, we will move to the Department of Transportation and file” for changes, hinting at a court challenge.

Spear said the California provision that requires a 30-minute break for every 5 hours of work has cost the industry $500 million in court settlements and pending litigation.

“Everybody is feeling this pain [big and small] all for the benefit of trial attorneys,” he said.

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Brian Straight

Brian Straight covers general transportation news and leads the editorial team as Managing Editor. A journalism graduate of the University of Rhode Island, he has covered everything from a presidential election, to professional sports and Little League baseball, and for more than 10 years has covered trucking and logistics. Before joining FreightWaves, he was previously responsible for the editorial quality and production of Fleet Owner magazine and Brian lives in Connecticut with his wife and two kids and spends his time coaching his son’s baseball team, golfing with his daughter, and pursuing his never-ending quest to become a professional bowler.