The year ahead

Feb. 18, 2015
When it comes to predictions, sometimes being later is better

One of those sages that wander the subways of New York once told me that the early bird may indeed get the worm, but the late worm never gets eaten by the early bird. In that spirit I’ve avoided the January rush of predictions for the new year and saved mine for February, which gives me the chance to also appear sage by collecting and cherry-picking the best of all those informed opinions.

To start with the obvious, we will get a transportation bill this year that should bring some longer term confidence to funding some infrastructure investment.  It’s still early days for the new Congress with its Republican majorities in both houses, but even if the partisan rancor of the last session roars back, both parties seem to identify infrastructure spending as one area where they can at least appear to be working together for the good of the country.

The open questions are how much spending will they authorize and how will they pay for it?  With much lower oil prices and a better economy removing some public resistance, chances for a fuel tax increase are better than they have been in some time.  However, “better” in this case is a very low bar, and my guess is that a realistic compromise will be finally indexing the tax to inflation so any increases are automatic and outside of political finger-pointing.  That still leaves a big gap between immediate investment needs and available funds.  My hope (rather than prediction) is Congress finds a one-shot pot of dollars to address the shortfall, perhaps through one of the schemes being floated to allow U.S. companies to repatriate dollars currently held offshore.

Which naturally leads to dropping oil and fuel prices.  My prediction here is enjoy it while you can.  Whether it’s even a slight economic uptick in Europe and Asia or a move by the big oil-producing countries, oil is not going to stay under $50 a barrel for any length of time.  And even if it does, that just presents the political opportunity to attack greenhouse gas emissions with carbon or other taxes that make burning petroleum more expensive. So take the savings now, but don’t let up on fuel economy or alternative fuels.

Another easy prediction is that driver pay will continue to ripple upwards as U.S. businesses in general finally begin to raise pay across the board and unemployment continues to edge downwards.  However, the tight driver market will also continue to keep freight capacity tight, which means solid rates and profits for for-hire fleets.  I also believe it will lead to a resurgence in private fleets this year as companies look for ways to ensure at least some minimum levels of capacity.  And despite fears otherwise, I don’t think the recent move to finally open our borders to Mexican fleets will have anything but limited impact.  After all, they couldn’t even get enough fleets interested in a pilot program to collect meaningful data, so why would we expect a new flood of interest now?

On the regulatory side, I expect we’re just one major accident away from seeing Congressional support evaporate for loosening or rationalizing hours of service.  The new head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has his hands full at the moment with automobile recall problems.  Once that’s sorted out, look for this academic, whose research specialty is impaired driving, to weigh in on the side of more, not fewer, restrictions when it comes to driving and off-duty times.

So now that the early birds are gone, there are my predictions for 2015.

About the Author

Jim Mele

Nationally recognized journalist, author and editor, Jim Mele joined Fleet Owner in 1986 with over a dozen years’ experience covering transportation as a newspaper reporter and magazine staff writer. Fleet Owner Magazine has won over 45 national editorial awards since his appointment as editor-in-chief in 1999.

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