Cristina Commendatore | FleetOwner
ATA president and CEO Chris Spear deliver state of industry address during MCE 2022.

ATA’s Spear: 'Don't mess with trucking'

Oct. 25, 2022
Trucking federation's president and CEO touts infrastructure, victory over one state’s truck-only tolls scheme, and environmental regulatory work as notable industry successes this past year.

SAN DIEGO—In his seventh year as American Trucking Associations president and CEO, Chris Spear took the stage at ATA’s 2022 Management Conference & Exhibition to drive home the association’s primary objective: to win.

During his state of the industry and association address, Spear noted several of ATA’s successes over the past year. He kicked off his address with what he called “big news from the smallest state,” referring to a recent legal victory against the truck-only tolls scheme in the state of Rhode Island.

“We told the state’s elected leaders from the start that their crazy, truck-only tolling scam called RhodeWorks was not only discriminatory  but unconstitutional,” Spear said, adding that heavy trucks are just 4% of the vehicles on the road, yet pay for half the tab of the federal highway trust fund. “We told them 80% of their local communities are wholly dependent on trucks for their needs, and that RhodeWorks would further inflate what Rhode Islanders already pay at the pump and at the store.”

After a four-year battle, a U.S. district judge in September ruled that Rhode Island’s truck-only tolls violate the Interstate Commerce Clause of the Constitution.

“This win is extraordinary,” Spear stressed. “It’s the result of ATA, the Rhode Island Trucking Association, and our members taking a stand and saying, ‘enough.’ The millions of hardworking men and women who keep this economy rolling cannot be shaken down by politicians desperate for a quick fix for their budgetary failures. Make no mistake, the impact of this victory stands far beyond Rhode Island’s borders. From the Eastern Seaboard to the Mountain West, anyone debating a similar target on our industry has now received an unmistakable message: Don’t mess with trucking.”

That message, Spear noted, was a lesson that federal regulators also needed to learn when it came to last year’s possibility of a federal vaccine mandate that loomed large for the industry. At the time, the Biden administration tasked the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to oversee mandated vaccinations for businesses with more than 100 employees.

ATA intervened, telling federal regulators that truck drivers are isolated, making trucking one of the lowest-risk industries. ATA also warned that a big chunk of trucking’s workforce would be at risk of leaving the industry if the mandate went into effect, adversely impacting the supply chain and economy after a pandemic-induced rut. 

“Our elected officials didn’t listen, so we found someone who would,” Spear said. “This time, the Supreme Court of the United States. We took the fight to the highest court in the land, resulting in a 6-3 decision, a clear majority, that upended in two months what could have been a catastrophic end to our industry’s ability to support our nation’s economy.”

See also: Vaccine-or-test mandate withdrawn following Supreme Court defeat

As critical as he was of elected officials, Spear was quick to point out that over the past year, there were plenty of instances in which legislators did listen.

Infrastructure

During his address, Spear touted the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA)—more commonly known as the bipartisan infrastructure law—that President Joe Biden signed into law late last year.  

“The last administration talked a good game and number as high as $2 trillion in funding. But after four years in office, including two with the House and Senate majority, Republicans never introduced an infrastructure bill—not a single piece of legislation,” Spear noted. “As we say in Wyoming, all hat and no cattle.”

Spear recognized MCE attendee Rep. Peter DeFazio, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, for his leadership and willingness to work with stakeholders like ATA, resulting in the passage of a $1.2 trillion investment in America’s infrastructure. The bill includes a 38% increase in road and bridge funding, or $550 billion over five years—the largest amount since the Eisenhower administration, Spear added.

“This direct infusion of funds will benefit every major artery our trucks run on across the United States,” Spear said. “That’s less downtime. That lowers the amount that you spend on maintenance, repair, and overhaul on your equipment. That gets your trucks from there to here and back more safely and efficiently. That reduces time your drivers spend sitting endlessly in congestion, perhaps even questioning their career choice. And that dramatically cuts the amount of CO2 pumped into our environment every single year.”

Addressing workforce challenges

IIJA, Spear noted, not only benefits roads and bridges but also trucking’s workforce. Namely, the Safe Driver Apprenticeship Pilot Program studies how drivers younger than 21 operate in interstate commerce. Up to 3,000 commercial drivers between 18 and 20 years old are being accepted into the program, which has been backed by the U.S. Transportation and Labor departments.

Spear also pointed to ATA’s Women in Motion program, which is designed to elevate and highlight the contributions of women to the trucking industry, encourage more women to consider a career in trucking, and address issues within the policy arena that specifically impact women.

Today, nearly 8% of professional drivers are women, an all-time high but still lagging the national average for workforce participation for women, according to ATA. In addition, ATA noted that just 4% of all diesel technicians are women.

“What makes this program unique is its ability to turn barriers to entry into solutions for recruitment,” Spear said. “Improving the safety and security of our workforce, including new, well-lit parking, has a direct correlation on attracting more women into our driver force.”

Environmental regs, federal excise tax

For more than four decades, ATA has partnered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in support of the SmartWay program, Spear noted. Working “hand in glove with the EPA” to issue emissions-reduction rules has shaped what Spear said are realistic targets and timelines.

“As a result, 66 trucks today emit what a single truck emitted in 1988,” Spear explained. “That’s innovation at its best. Investments in automation and alternative-energy sources will only ensure trucking’s future growth and outcomes. It is therefore critical that our industry continues to develop national standards with the EPA, avoiding a state-driven patchwork of unachievable mandates and timelines and endless and costly litigation.”

Spear also stressed the importance of retiring “outdated policies” like the century-old federal excise tax. FET, which was born shortly after the Titanic sank to help fund trench warfare in Germany, today adds up to $25,000 to the cost of every power unit purchased, he said.

“That hurts good-paying manufacturing jobs,” Spear said. “That limits our ability to support the supply chain, and it reduces the number of safe and environmentally equipment on our nation’s highways.” 

About the Author

Cristina Commendatore

Cristina Commendatore was previously the Editor-in-chief of FleetOwner magazine. She reported on the transportation industry since 2015, covering topics such as business operational challenges, driver and technician shortages, truck safety, and new vehicle technologies. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut.

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