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June 13, 2016 4:01 AM, EDT

Graves Looks Back on ATA Tenure (with video)

Outgoing President Sees More Road Fund Battles Ahead
Graves and Bill Canary on his first day in 2003/TT file photo

This story appears in the June 13 print edition of Transport Topics.

Trucking will continue to face familiar infrastructure funding battles as opportunity increasingly beckons for the industry to capitalize on dramatic technological advancements, said Bill Graves. And he should know.

He has spent a lot of time around the trucking business, from the family-owned Graves Truck Line of his youth in Salina, Kansas, to his role today as head of the industry’s leading advocacy group, American Trucking Associations.

PHOTO GALLERY: The Bill Graves years at ATA

ASSOCIATION FORECAST: What Graves sees ahead for ATA

Graves offered the insight about the funding challenge and many other thoughts in a recent interview with Transport Topics as he prepares to yield ATA leadership to a yet-to-be named successor when he retires Dec. 31.

Graves and Bill Canary on his first day in 2003/TT file photo

In the meantime, there are overarching issues such as long-term infrastructure funding that remain as unresolved as they were upon his arrival in 2003 — when he targeted the same issue as his top priority. He points to the FAST Act that authorized funding for roads and bridges for five years but didn’t fully identify a source for the money.

“A day of reckoning is coming,” Graves said, referring to highway funding. “I don’t think we’re out of the woods yet, because where [Congress is] going to do the next rabbit-out-of-the-hat fiscal deal is just hard for me to figure out. The freight has to get moved. The essentiality of trucking isn’t going to diminish.”

After more than a dozen years at the helm of ATA, Graves, 63, maintains the Midwest candor that he brought to Washington soon after completing his gubernatorial obligation in Kansas. He paused for one day between leaving the Kansas capitol in Topeka to do business in the nation’s capital.

The lack of bipartisanship on federal transportation affairs has left him feeling concerned about growing polarization that has frustrated his policy agenda and his view of politics.

“It may be that we need to acknowledge that the time for public servants like myself has passed,” Graves said. “It feels like every calculation over on Capitol Hill starts with what the political outcomes are, before it really focuses on what the policy benefits might be.”

He cited polls about the presumptive nominees for the presidency, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, that characterized them as the “two most unpopular individuals running for president in modern times.” No matter who wins, he said, he envisioned a continuation of the poisoned political environment next year, and it could get worse without any compromise, leaving major issues as elusive as they are today.

“I was able to live through a time where at least, I think, the focus was on: ‘What’s the right policy? Let’s figure out what we need to do and then let’s figure out how we’re going to sort of manage the political fallout from doing the right thing,’ ” said Graves, who was elected governor of his home state of Kansas in 1995 and served two terms. “And I don’t know that necessarily makes where we are sort of wrong, but it’s just different.”

Despite congressional paralysis, Graves is looking to wrap up key trucking issues on Capitol Hill before the end of his tenure — he is ATA’s second-longest-serving president, allowing him a closeup of the ills that have plagued Washington. These include enacting provisions in must-pass spending legislation pertaining to rest and meal break pre- emption for states, and permanently fixing the hours-of-service restart provision that remains uncertain after a technical error in a fiscal 2016 funding law.

Fiscal 2017 funding legislation scheduled to reach the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives this month would deny funding to enforce requirements that truckers take off between 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. over two consecutive days. The same legislation would prevent California and other states from enacting laws requiring companies to schedule meal and rest breaks for drivers.

Enactment of these would cap a series of recent legislative victories for ATA, completing a long-term record that has left Graves satisfied overall.

For example, the FAST Act removed from public view Compliance, Safety, Accountability performance scores pending an overhaul of how they’re calculated by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. ATA opposed the methodology used. The FAST Act also established a pilot program aiming to bring in younger military veterans and reservists to interstate trucking. And the law paved the way for the use of hair testing as a pre-employment screening tool as an alternative to urinalysis.

“I think, all in all in an environment of quite a bit of regulatory overload and difficult political times over on Capitol Hill, we have conducted ourselves pretty well over these 14 years,” Graves said.

The federation’s top executive also reiterated his belief that fuel taxes remain the best funding choice for infrastructure fixes, despite Congress’ resistance, predicting those levies could increase in the future after legislators realize there is no other way to fund critical improvements. Currently, the federal tax on diesel is 24.4 cents a gallon, and for gasoline it’s 18.4 cents.

He also underscored the importance of another strategy for the trucking industry: “We need to figure out how to stay connected as a unified voice,” Graves said.

At the same time, he acknowledged the challenges of representing trucking in Washington (see related story).

In addition, he expressed pride in the industry’s technological advancements.

Graves addressed the development of automated vehicles such as self-driving trucks, platooning and vehicle-to-vehicle communications, saying he “marvels” at the variety of technology that leads to safety and operational efficiency.

Those types of systems hold “great safety implications for the country,” given the aggressive driving behavior, excessive speeds and inattentiveness of many motorists today.

“Whether it’s a passenger vehicle or a commercial vehicle, we’ll save lives and prevent accidents by embracing some of these new technologies,” Graves said.

However, he returned to the theme of inadequate infrastructure, saying it could be an obstacle for automation of commercial vehicles, especially considering the increasing number of trucks that will be needed to move the nation’s freight in the years ahead.

Graves suggested that truck-only lanes would help to enable more freight automation but added that securing government funding for such investments would be a challenge.

“We can either watch these technologies in video demonstrations and applaud how neat these things are, or we can figure out how to come up with real money and put them into practice,” he said.

Similarly, regulatory incentives could spur greater adoption of safety technologies on the market today such as lane-departure warnings and collision-mitigation systems, Graves said.

He acknowledged that there are some “very fine” smaller carriers “who do all they can to operate safely” but can’t always afford the latest advanced safety technologies, perhaps jeopardizing their future.

He also said he anticipates that the federal mandate for electronic logging devices, effective December 2017, and a potential mandate of speed limiters will have “a pretty significant impact” on the industry, especially on some of those smaller operators.

Requiring carriers to adhere strictly to hours-of-service regulations while limiting their maximum speed could trim their hauling capacity, Graves said, but he maintained that the adoption of those devices ultimately will be good for the industry.

Graves also worried about the broader implications of infrastructure policy and technology outside Washington.

While many states can afford to effectively fund infrastructure, he pointed out individual states’ problems. For example, a truck-only toll proposal in Rhode Island. Such desperate steps are a sign of the damage that could result if Congress decides to yank more funding from states, he insisted.

Further, Graves expressed disappointment about an inability to counteract opponents who have “created a narrative that makes trucking a bad guy.”

As for what’s next for Graves, he said that he’s unsure. Musing about his extensive career, he said that it has been 36 years without a significant break.

“This is a good time. I want to take a break. It feels like the right thing for me,” he said. “It’s been a nonstop great run.”