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October 7, 2013 2:45 AM, EDT

Fleet Survivors Primed for Growth as Economy Improves, Graves Says

By Neil Abt, Managing Editor

This story appears in the Oct. 7 print edition of Transport Topics.

Many years of navigating through a challenging economic and legislative environment has left trucking fleets more efficient than ever and primed to take advantage of new business opportunities, according to the president of American Trucking Associations.

“Carriers that have survived the economic downturn and the regulatory onslaught we have been dealing with are now positioning themselves . . . to keep moving forward,” ATA President Bill Graves said in an interview with Transport Topics. “While nobody is rushing to add capacity yet, it is time to assess the changes we are going through and consider the future.”

Dealing with the future will be one theme of this year’s Management Conference & Exhibition, scheduled for Oct. 19-22 in Orlando, Fla. The conference also will “spend a little time recapping the issues we have been involved with and had some degree of success,” he said.

One critical area remains hours of service.

“The litigation is completed, and I don’t expect at this point there is any intention to pursue any further legal path on HOS, but there will be a lot of discussion about the things that came out that are good for us,” Graves said.

While much of the attention surrounding the August decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit was focused on upholding the 34-hour restart provision, Graves said that maintaining the 11-hour driving day was significant.

“A lot of people tend to overlook the fact our opponents were continuing to clamor for a reduction in the end number of driving hours,” he said.

Graves said he believed the future of the restart remained uncertain.

“We are going to let the real-world results of the restart speak for themselves. A lot of data is being captured, and I have a degree of confidence that our position on the restart is accurate. We do believe it impacts productivity and, quite possibly, safety,” he said.

Another issue Graves cited was protecting the owner-operator business model.

“We still have strong interest in all things involving independent contractors,” said Graves, following the conclusion of the court case against the Port of Los Angeles.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that portions of Los Angeles’ clean truck plan violate federal preemption law. The port originally had sought to ban independent contractors from working at the nation’s busiest port.

At MCE, the independent contractor task force will meet to determine if there are any state initiatives that could require ATA’s involvement in the coming year. An educational session on independent contractor relationships is planned for Oct. 20.

That same day, the general luncheon will feature a panel by Bob Costello, ATA’s chief economist. He will be joined by Kenny Vieth of ACT Research and Mark Vitner of Wells Fargo; Stuart Varney of Fox News will moderate.

Graves will present his “State of the Industry” address Oct. 21 at the opening session, which also includes Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Dave Barry. Later that afternoon, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush will be the guest speaker at the advocacy and government affairs luncheon.

The event’s final day features general sessions offering discussions on truck driver management strategies with Dave Osiecki, ATA senior vice president of policy and regulatory affairs, and the highway funding crisis with Robert Darbelnet, president of AAA.

“It is going to be interesting because AAA occasionally has a different perspective on issues like fuel taxes and speed limits. He represents the people we share the road with,” Graves said.

As for the funding crisis, Graves sounded an all-too familiar warning.

“I don’t know Congress will have an opportunity to touch on highway funding anyway soon,” he said. “If they don’t, we have to be skeptical about something happening by October of next year, with the run-up to the 2014 elections a month after the expiration of the current bill — MAP-21.”

Other MCE discussion points cited by Graves included “Congress’ ever-evolving regulatory process,” including the Compliance, Safety, Accountability program, and sleep apnea.

At last year’s event, ATA agreed to push the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to develop a formal rule on apnea testing and treatment rather than issuing guidance. The agency agreed to that path in mid-September.

Government regulations also will be the focus of several educational sessions taking place throughout the conference. The use of natural gas, the driver shortage and the top legal hurdles facing the industry are among other issues expected to be discussed during other educational sessions.

All ATA policy committees will hold meetings for members during MCE, and the industry’s suppliers will showcase their products and services in the exhibit hall. ATA said it anticipates a record number of product launches to be announced during MCE.

Following the board of directors meeting Oct. 22, the conference will conclude with the banquet featuring a return performance by comedian Jeff Foxworthy.