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December 21, 2021 10:30 AM, EST

ATA Leadership: 2021 Brought Trucking Several Key Victories

DriversDrivers on a highway. (John Sommers II for Transport Topics)

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The trucking industry will look back on 2021 as a year of important victories for infrastructure improvement and workforce development, and now can look ahead to the opportunities those victories present, leaders from American Trucking Associations said.

“In five years in this role, we have never witnessed a better year for advocacy than 2021,” said ATA President Chris Spear, who marked his fifth anniversary leading the federation in 2021. “You take two tier one victories — infrastructure and the DRIVE Safe Act — and you begin to understand the impact that five years of work has finally delivered for our members and industry.”

During that span, Spear said he and other trucking industry officials testified 25 times before Congress on the importance of passing an infrastructure bill. That finally happened this year, when President Joe Biden on Nov. 15 signed into law the $1 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, a bipartisan bill that includes $100 billion for road and bridge improvements. Spear said the legislation over the next five years will provide funding for thousands of miles of highways and roads to be improved and for hundreds of bridges to be rebuilt, leading to reduction in congestion and improved transportation for the trucking industry and passenger vehicles.

Chris Spear

Spear

Spear said the new law is proof that the nation can be pro-business development, create jobs, significantly reduce carbon emissions, and move toward alternative fuel vehicles, both in trucking and passenger vehicles.

“If you’re pro-job growth, this is a tremendous step forward. If you’re pro-highway safety, if you’re pro-environment, this bill delivers on every single interest there is,” Spear emphasized.

For job growth, the bill included the DRIVE Safe Act, which creates a federal training and apprenticeship program for candidates younger than 21 to drive in interstate commerce. The program has maximum rolling enrollment of 3,000 participants.

The initiative is designed to help ease the industry’s shortage of drivers, which ATA estimates now tops 80,000.

“You can make good wages — especially for all those that live in, say, the South or the Midwest — with excellent benefits,” ATA Chief Economist Bob Costello told TT. “These folks are getting 401(k) [plans], paid time off, health insurance. We’ve got good benefits. We have good blue-collar jobs.” On Dec. 17, the White House announced a multifaceted program in partnership with the industry that aims to expand recruiting efforts in trucking through various efforts, including apprenticeship programs. The initiative also aims to recruit former members of the military returning to civilian life.

“We’re now seeing the government wake up and understand the implications not just on an industry that hauls 72% of the domestic freight tonnage in this country, but on the larger-scale economy and supply chain itself,” Spear said. “It’s a very exciting announcement by the administration, and a recognition that this problem exists and that we’re actually going to take tangible steps to address this.” Costello noted that hundreds of trucking companies increased driver pay in 2021 as freight volumes rose. Headed into 2022, he expects trucking activity to remain vibrant, and the overall economy to remain strong.

Bob Costello

Costello

“Households continue to spend money,” Costello said. “They’re spending it more on goods than they traditionally have, versus services. We have a growing economy.”

Spear also praised efforts to combat “nuclear verdicts” — those resulting in jury awards larger than $10 million — in court cases involving trucking companies.

“I couldn’t be prouder of our state associations,” Spear said. “We’ve now witnessed wins in Iowa, Missouri, Louisiana, Montana, West Virginia, and as of this summer in Texas. And that gives me great confidence that, going forward, we’re going to continue to reshape the playing field where we are not being subject to these nuclear verdicts.” Spear said ATA is also focused on an ongoing court challenge to a truck-only tolling plan in Rhode Island.

“This is the ground zero of all tolling cases,” Spear said. “If this were not challenged, governors and states would be free to impose truck-only tolling schemes anywhere in the country in any state.”

Also on the agenda is the fate of California’s Assembly Bill 5, which would reclassify independent contractors as employees. ATA maintains that would limit the owner-operator business model and the freedom these drivers have to run their own business and set their schedules.

“This is our tier one effort to stand up our legal capabilities to not just fight in the halls of Congress or a regulatory agency, but in every statehouse and every courthouse in the country.” Spear said. “And I think that is exactly what our members expect of this association — to leverage every opportunity to represent their needs and interests.”

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