SAN DIEGO—The nation’s highest-ranking transportation official came to American Trucking Associations’ Management Conference & Exhibition with a purpose: “To express our administration’s understanding that trucking is absolutely vital to the supply chains that are the backbone of the American economy.”
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg paid industry stakeholders a visit to discuss his plans to not only make trucking safer and more efficient but also to make life better for the men and women who haul the nation’s freight.
Buttigieg detailed the Biden administration’s Trucking Action Plan, which includes a roadmap to improve truck driver pay and truck leasing agreements and address the unique challenges that women face in the industry. Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Transportation also launched a National Roadway Safety Strategy to drive down the number of traffic deaths.“Last year, we lost over 800 truck drivers to traffic crashes, and reducing those tragedies is a shared responsibility across government at every level, for passenger vehicle drivers and truck drivers,” Buttigieg told MCE attendees.
The administration also is intent on bringing more drivers into the industry, including women and veterans, and creating debt-free pathways into the career. As part of this effort, DOT has partnered with the U.S. Department of Labor to increase the number of registered truck driver apprenticeship programs.
“We’ve taken steps to streamline the issuing of commercial driver's licenses, providing additional funding for the states to remove barriers, which has helped them to add 43,000 CDLs this year,” Buttigieg said, noting that is 32% more than the same period in 2019 and 14% more than last year.
A former military officer who served in Afghanistan and operated heavy equipment, Buttigieg said the department also is providing grants to cover training costs for veterans to get their CDLs.
Truck parking, infrastructure investments
Buttigieg noted that he has heard pleas directly from truck drivers and associations like ATA and the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association about fixing the nation’s lack of truck parking.
In September, DOT announced truck-parking investments through the administration’s INFRA grant program. Investments included $15 million to add 120 new truck parking spaces along the critical Interstate 4 "Disney" corridor in Florida between Tampa and Orlando and a $22.6 million investment to add 125 spaces along I-40 east of Nashville, Tennessee.
“For all of those whose workplace is infrastructure, roads, bridges, highway interchanges, and more that we’re working on right now, we're working to make that a better workplace with funding levels not seen since the interstate highway system was created in the first place,” Buttigieg said. “I want to express my optimism on everything that we can deliver together. My hope is that we will be looking back on the 2020s as a period when trucking modernized its future while staying true to its finest traditions.”
Making truck driving more appealing for all
The signing of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act last fall by President Biden created a Women of Trucking Advisory Board, which Buttigieg chartered in February. The board is tasked with identifying industry trends that directly or indirectly discourage women from trucking careers; how trucking companies and organizations can facilitate support for women in trucking; how to expand existing opportunities for women in the industry; and how to enhance trucking training, mentorship, education, and outreach programs that are exclusive to women.
Currently, women hold only 24% of all transportation jobs.
“There’s a mathematical madness of allowing 50% of our workforce, 50% of our talent, and 50% of the people who could be the greatest, safest drivers in the country to be underused and underappreciated as a resource,” Buttigieg told ATA attendees. “Shame on us to allow that to even be the case.”
After addressing MCE attendees, Buttigieg took some time to sit down with industry media and answered questions on driver detention time, infrastructure investments, supply chain resiliency, zero-emission vehicles, and double brokering (check out the video for the entire discussion).
A big part of Buttigieg’s focus to make truck driving a more appealing job for current and future drivers is tackling driver detention issues at shipper facilities.
“Here you have a situation where you don’t have as many driver hours available as we need in the economy and simultaneously, we are wasting drivers’ time,” Buttigieg said. “The first thing we can do to get ahead of this is the compensation study because part of this is just a consequence of the compensation model that exists. When you are paid by the mile and not paid by the hour, nobody is financially responsible for wasting a driver’s time other than the driver.”
“Some employers absorb that, but that’s not a good answer economically as a whole,” he added. “There should be enough economic incentive for that detention to not happen in the first place.”
Buttigieg emphasized the importance of working with the ports and engaging them through measures like the Ocean Shipping Reform Act.
“The bottom line is that we can’t go on like this where we don’t have enough capacity on the trucking side and simultaneously some of that precious capacity is sitting there waiting for a load and drivers waiting for a chance to turn around and do their job,” he said.
DOT’s focus on decarbonizing trucking
The industry has been ramping up talks and efforts to reduce emissions in various ways. The well-known reality is long-haul trucking can’t run on battery-electric vehicles just yet. When asked about the kind of work the administration is doing to focus on technologies other than battery-electric vehicles to decarbonize trucking, Buttigieg said he understands sustainability efforts will vary across different sectors of the industry.
“The picture for over the road trucking is different than it is for light-duty vehicles and cars. We recognize that,” he said. “A lot of our policies are set up in a way that’s platform neutral. It depends. On cars, we placed a pretty big bet on electric, but a lot of the regulations you’ll see on zero emissions don’t tell you how to get to zero emissions; they’ll just tell you that you need to get there.”
“We get that it’s not all going to be the same and that there will be a lot of particular challenges, but also different opportunities around trucking,” Buttigieg added. “We’re not naïve about the differences needed for trucking and light-duty passenger vehicles. But it’s how we have a transformation that creates American jobs and gets us to a cleaner climate.”