Wasted dollars

May 1, 2007
The next time you're traveling at a snail's pace on a major highway in the United States, road repairs might be the cause for delay. Nasty weather also

The next time you're traveling at a snail's pace on a major highway in the United States, road repairs might be the cause for delay. Nasty weather also can turn a regular workday commute into a nightmare. But inadequate highway infrastructure accounts for 40% of the congestion that continues to waste billions of dollars, Patrick Quinn, American Trucking Associations chairman, told members of the Truckload Carriers Association during their annual convention in Las Vegas, Nevada.

“Every year about $168 billion is wasted because of highway congestion, according to a study by the Texas Transportation Institute,” Quinn said. “It's like an insidious cancer on our nation's economy. A large percentage of this waste can be found in billions of hours of idle time on bottlenecked highways. In the past 25 years, US gross domestic product has grown 115%, truck tonnage 111%, vehicle miles 89%, and population by 28%. But we don't grow our highway infrastructure.

“It will take action from our industry, the public, and highway users to get our local, state, and federal representatives to work on infrastructure and recognize the devastating cost to our economy. It will cost money to improve congestion, but it will cost more money not to do anything.

“Other countries, particularly China, are spending much more in increasing their infrastructure than the United States for rail, truck, ports, and airports. TCA and individual companies must get involved in supporting better infrastructure.”

In 2006, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) appointed Quinn to the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission. Established by the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU), the commission will conduct a comprehensive study of the current condition and future needs of the surface transportation system and funding alternatives to meet those needs. Twelve members will comprise the commission, including the Secretary of Transportation, who will serve as commission chairman.

Several initiatives supported by ATA were included in the highway bill:

  • Replacement of the Single-State Registration System with a new Unified Carrier Registration Agreement.

  • Roadability legislation to ensure the safe operation of interchanged intermodal equipment.

  • Funding for traffic enforcement to promote safe driving habits of motorists around trucks.

  • Improvements in the reporting of motor carrier safety data by states and, subsequently, in FMCSA's posting and utilization of more reliable data relative to motor carrier safety performance.

  • $25-million grant program to increase the number of available parking spaces for trucks so that drivers can find a safe and legal place to get required long-term rest.

The economy is relying on trucks to haul more goods at a time when congestion is increasing and the number of drivers is not increasing at the same rate as demand. Trucking is projected to haul 13 billion tons of freight by 2016, compared with 9.8 billion tons in 2004. By 2016, ATA projects 3.7 million Class 8 trucks will be operating on the nation's highways, up from 2.7 million in 2004. If current trends continue, the number of trucks on the road and the number of miles trucks drive will double in the next two decades.

Future infrastructure

“It is a daunting challenge to come up with a transportation plan for people and freight that is similar to what the Eisenhower Administration did 50 years ago — particularly when you realize that freight will increase substantially and our economy depends on the easy movement of that freight,” Quinn said. “Our population this year just crossed 300 million and will reach 450 million in another 50 years. I have had the opportunity to educate these commission members about the importance of our truck industry and our role in moving freight across the country. I want to make sure that the commission understands the importance of an infrastructure that makes sense, looks to the future, and is innovative.

“Our existence as a major economic power in the world is going to depend on having the proper infrastructure to move freight. Eighty percent of our population will live within 100 miles of our coastlines. That's one area where the emphasis on infrastructure must be directed.

“The December report of this commission will be the basis for the new highway bill, which will be one of the most important since ISTEA. It is scheduled to be adopted by Congress in October 2009. Get engaged in the coming discussions on this legislation. We must be sure that it provides for the long-term needs of our highway system.”

Turning to the issue of financing and privatizing of highways, Quinn reminded TCA members that ATA continues to oppose privatization of existing toll roads, including a fund of $1.5 million set aside to educate the public on the issue and fight the privatization of these roads. He cited two examples of major lease agreements that resulted in large initial rate increases — the Indiana Toll Road and the Chicago Skyway.

“It's basically a lack of legislative will,” Quinn said. “Private companies definitely will make money, but what happens to maintenance and growth of the roads? Selling existing highways to private companies is an idea that we will continue to fight. If such a facility is sold or leased to private investors, proceeds derived by the government from the sale or lease of a toll facility should be used exclusively for highway investments on non-tolled facilities. Customers should not be required to subsidize unrelated government functions.

“While we must say no to irresponsible solutions, I encourage you to become involved in solutions that make sense in relieving the congestion on our highways. States are looking for additional cash, and there are different proposals being examined — each with their own nuances. One size doesn't fit all. If someone wants to build a private road and charge a toll, I don't see that as a problem. The public then has a choice if they want to use it.”

Industry productivity

Productivity in the trucking industry has slipped the past few years because of highway congestion, revised hour-of-service rules, more frequent shorter hauls, and changes in driver lifestyles. Drivers are getting less miles to earn money — one of the reasons it's becoming more difficult to fill those driver seats.

“Over the next decade, total expansion and replacement hiring needs will require 539,000 drivers — 59% of new hires will be the result of economic growth and the remaining 41% balance will be the result of retirees and replacements,” he said. “An average of about 54,000 new drivers per year are needed to keep pace with demand.”

Addressing the driver shortage issue, ATA in early 2007 launched its National Truck Driver Recruiting Campaign, www.gettrucking.com. Gettrucking.com is a nationwide effort to promote positive images of truck driving and to recruit long-haul truck drivers for ATA's 50 state associations and their member motor carriers. ATA's goal is to increase the base of individuals who typically become long-haul drivers, including previously untapped labor pools. Most notably, the industry is targeting ex-military, minorities, women, workers who have lost their jobs because of downsizing or outsourcing, newcomers to the labor force and people over age 50 who may want to trade a desk job for a career on the open road.

“Attracting and keeping safe drivers is essential,” Quinn said. “We have to make our hiring programs attractive, including good pay, which is only one part of the issue. Driving a truck is not just a job. It's a career choice. Drivers must be committed to safety on our nation's highways.

“One accident is one too many, but we should make sure we are telling the story about improving highway safety in the trucking industry. With increasing highway congestion, last year's fatality rate was 23 less people than the previous year. Injuries were down by 1.7% (2,000 fewer injuries) from 2004.

“It's a cooperative and educational effort in promoting highway safety that is shared by professional drivers. We'll never know about the accident that was prevented because of safety.”

DOT partner

To promote better safety among drivers, ATA has been an active partner with the Department of Transportation's commercial motor vehicle department safety program for the past two years to increase the number of truck drivers wearing seatbelts. While 82% of automobile drivers wear seatbelts, only 54% of truck drivers wear them, Quinn said. “I encourage you to get involved with your driver workforce. We at US Xpress make sure that it is the responsibility of the outbound dispatcher to ask the driver to buckle up before getting on the road. It saves lives, reduces injuries, and is just good common sense.”

In promoting safety, Quinn repeated ATA's longstanding policy of supporting a maximum of 65 mph for all vehicles. The ATA executive committee recently approved a recommendation that the maximum speed of commercial vehicles be set at 68 mph by the manufacturer.

“While a controversial position, I still believe it the right thing to for truck safety, for highway policy, and for the image of our industry that we are taking a leadership role in attempting to remove what is viewed by safety advocates as ‘killer trucks on our nation's roads.’ This hurts our efforts to improve highway safety and even perhaps our efforts to attract drivers into our industry.”

Newly elected TCA chairman James O'Neal, president of O&S Transportation, echoed Quinn's concern for improving the image of the trucking industry. TCA recently announced that is initiating a project to examine why there is a difference between perception and reality regarding the quality and safety of the trucking industry and its professional drivers.

“Our industry has made great strides in safety, productivity, and professionalism,” O'Neal said. “We have to shrink the gap between negative perceptions held by the public and the reality of today's truckload industry. We need to know why, for example, many people fear sharing the road with trucks. Our professional drivers should be recognized by the motoring public as the safest drivers on the road.

“We also want to know why juries who are deliberating accidents involving trucks feel they need to punish our industry. TCA has agreed to form a task force to draft a business plan to determine what research is needed to shrink this gap and examine those attitudes.”

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