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February 23, 2009 3:55 AM, EST
Graves Says Trucking Ready for Highway Bill Despite Uncertainty About Obama’s Agenda
By Sean McNally, Senior Reporter

This story appears in the Feb. 23 print edition of Transport Topics.

With so much attention being placed on the economic stimulus legislation, trucking has not been able to uncover much about the Obama administration’s transportation policy, said Bill Graves, president of American Trucking Associations.

However, he said the industry has spent several years prepping for this year’s highway reauthorization and was ready for the challenges ahead.

“There’s a tremendous uncertainty about the capabilities of this new administration and what to expect,” Graves told Transport Topics in an interview ahead of the federation’s annual Winter Leadership Meeting. “No one is, at this point, able or willing to look much beyond the stimulus package.”

The annual meeting, scheduled for Feb. 22-24, will have a slightly different feel this year, Graves said.

“We have specifically transformed what has historically been a meeting where we gather and principally took care of association business [and then] sent everybody home,” Graves said. “This year we’re going to gather quickly and take care of [association] business and then transport everyone over for a day’s worth of advocacy calls on Capitol Hill.”

The visit will be focused more on “the things we’re interested in seeing in a reauthorization bill” rather than the stimulus legislation, Graves said.

In Washington, the unrelenting parade of bad economic news has dampened the mood in the nation’s capital since Obama took office, he said.

“There was certainly a great deal of optimism and energy, but that’s given way . . . to a realization, a recognition of the harsh reality of how challenging this economic situation is.

“There may be a few members that go back as far as the Great Depression, but I imagine it’s not many,” he said. “This is shaping up to be our generation’s version of the Great Depression.”

Stimulus aside, Graves said its “difficult to take any sort of measure” of how the new administration will treat the trucking industry.

Other than naming former Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) as secretary of the Department of Transportation, there has been little else in the way of a transportation agenda.

All of the regulatory agencies within the Department of Transportation, notably the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and Federal Highway Administration, are still without new full-time administrators, positions Graves said ATA placed “great importance” on.

“While we may not know who is going to head FMCSA . . . what we do know is there’s going to be an authorization [or] reauthorization bill discussed, debated and developed in 2009, and we’re right where we want to be in that process,” he said.

The current $286.4 billion law expires in September and will require a replacement that many groups have said will need to be larger in size and scope.

For several years, ATA has been developing “a strategy . . . for how we were going to proceed in 2009 focused principally on the reauthorization.”

That strategy is based on what ATA has called a “three-legged stool” — seeking support for more productive trucks, reducing speed and increasing federal fuel taxes to fund freight-related infrastructure.

“That has come together nicely as the basis for our advocacy in reauthorization,” he said. And those reauthorization efforts are what “brings us to this Winter Leadership meeting.”

Besides more funding for freight projects and increasing size-and-weight limits, ATA also wants to hold the line on tolls and privatization, he said.