Trucking will remain a key US transportation player

July 1, 2009
Rumors to the contrary, trucking will remain a critical part of the US economy for many decades to come.

Rumors to the contrary, trucking will remain a critical part of the US economy for many decades to come. However, tank truck fleets — and the trucking industry in general — face some serious challenges in the short term and longer term.

This assessment was part of “The State of the Trucking Industry” address delivered by Charles “Shorty” Whittington during the National Tank Truck Carriers 61st Annual Conference May 10-12 in San Diego, California. Whittington is president of Grammer Industries Inc and spent the past year as chairman of the American Trucking Associations.

Trucking will remain a vital part of the economy in this country for the simple reason that this transportation mode currently handles 68.8% of all freight tonnage and that share should reach 71% between by 2020. “Trucking is the 800-lb gorilla in the room,” Whittington said.

Truck tonnage is expected to grow by 30% between 2008 and 2020. In contrast, rail volume will grow by about 22%, water-borne freight movements will rise by 14%, and pipeline volume will climb 9%.

Despite the growth, most other modes actually are expected to become a smaller part of the overall transportation pie during the next 12 years, according to ATA data. For instance, rail tonnage will drop to just 13% of the total, water-borne tonnage will fall to 6%, and pipeline will be down to 9%.

The reason other modes will lose ground to trucking is that they have limited ability to expand infrastructure. For instance, the United States has just 26,000 miles of navigable waterway channels. Class 1 railroads currently have 95,000 miles of track, and it would be virtually impossible to expand the system without major population disruptions. Additionally, the existing rail network has very little extra capacity.

In contrast, the United States has built 4 million miles of highways, including the interstate highway system. A tremendous amount of freight moves over those highways, and that is unlikely to change significantly.

Growing challenges

While trucking does have infrastructure on its side, a number of serious concerns must be addressed. Whittington outlined the Top 10 trucking industry challenges for 2009. (It should be noted that this presentation was made before the House of Representatives Transportation Committee published its blueprint for the Transportation Reauthorization Bill in mid June.)

Fuel costs top the list of challenges. Whittington said the trucking industry must advocate for increased fuel supply through expanded domestic drilling for oil and more refinery capacity. The industry needs to promote fuel conservation initiatives, including a national speed limit and tax breaks for fuel-saving technologies. It's also important to support the development and deployment of alternative energy products.

The economy is next on the list. Whittington said it is absolutely critical for truck fleet managers to stay informed about activities at the state and federal levels (such as the recent bank and car manufacturer bailouts) that will impact the economy. Fleet executives must be involved with the associations — including ATA and NTTC — that represent the industry.

Number three is truck driver supply and retention. The recession has created a brief respite from the driver shortage, but the problem and its causes have not disappeared, according to Whittington.

Truck fleets must do a better job of researching and identifying the factors that most influence driver satisfaction. Now is the time for fleet managers to clean house and raise the quality of their driver force. This also is a good time to redesign and improve new entrant driver training programs.

Government regulation

Government regulation ranks number four on Whittington's list. Topping regulatory list was the union-backed card-check initiative that seems to have stalled in Congress. Misnamed the Employee Free Choice Act, the legislation would eliminate the secret ballot in union organizing drives. This is something industry absolutely must oppose, Whittington said.

The owner-operator/independent contractor classification is under fire at the state and national levels. In addition, higher taxes are likely through cap-and-trade programs tied to global warming and vehicle emissions.

Hours of service comes next in the Top 10. To address the hours-of-service challenges, the trucking industry must continue its advocacy for the 11- and 34-hour provisions in the current rules. “Our job is to educate the new regulators in Washington DC,” Whittington said.

The industry also must seek rule changes to allow split sleeper berth periods. Whittington also called on trucking companies to support more research to identify optimal ways to manage fatigue.

Traffic congestion

Traffic congestion ranks sixth on the list, and it is a costly problem. Physical bottlenecks in densely populated urban areas and other locations currently account for 40% of the traffic congestion in the United States, and the problem is getting worse. Today's congestion results in 243 million lost work hours each year and costs US industry $7.8 billion.

Whittington offered the following strategies to address the congestion issue: The trucking industry should promote size and weight provisions to maximize productivity and decrease roadway demand. It's important to examine the potential for truck-only lanes/corridors/networks. The industry must promote stimulus programs for the highways.

Ranked seven on the Top 10 is the combined issue of highway funding and toll roads. Most importantly, the trucking industry must prevent the diversion of Highway Trust funding to non-highway programs. “We must communicate with the right people, and we must tell them why trucks are so important to the US economy,” Whittington said.

He also called on the trucking industry to continue opposing tolls and privatization efforts on existing highways. In addition, the industry must promote fuel tax increases for additional roadway maintenance and construction funding.

Environmental issues

Environmental issues rank number eight, and Whittington said the trucking industry must be proactive. Strategies include seeking tax incentives for new technology adoption and alternative fuel usage. The industry should advocate for uniform environmental program standards across all 50 states to reduce compliance costs.

It is important to encourage and publicize voluntary industry compliance with sustainability initiatives. Among those that deserve promotion are the Environmental Protection Agency's Smartway Program, the ATA Sustainability Taskforce, and the ATA Safety Taskforce recommendations.

Whittington offered six key factors that would enable the trucking industry to conserve fuel and reduce its carbon footprint:

  • Set a national speed limit of 65 miles per hour and spec governors to limit new truck speeds to 68 miles per hour;

  • Decrease idling;

  • Increase fuel efficiency through participation in Smartway;

  • Reduce congestion through highway improvements;

  • Promote more productive truck combinations;

  • Support national fuel economy standards.

Tort reform is next on the Top 10. It's important for the trucking industry to push for legislation imposing new caps for non-economic damages. The industry also must advocate for new legal fee structure and caps. Lastly, it is important to promote public education campaigns that outline the negative consequences of excess civil litigation.

Onboard truck technology rounds out the Top 10 list. ATA supports a federal requirement for electronic onboard recorders (EOBRs) and electronic driver logs. The association is calling for tax incentives to help offset the cost of the new technologies.

ATA wants more research to quantify real-world costs and benefits of onboard safety systems. Also needed are development of technical standards and more detailed recommended practices for implementation and use of EOBRs.