October 3, 2011 3:15 AM, EDT

Graves Says Infrastructure Funding Levels to Top Agenda at ATA’s Annual Meeting

By Neil Abt, News Editor

This story appears in the Oct. 3 print edition of Transport Topics.

With continued political gridlock in Washington and uncertainty surrounding the economy and several pending federal regulations, the president of American Trucking Associations said there will be no shortage of key discussion topics at this month’s Management Conference & Exhibition.

Still, one issue remains at the forefront, ATA President Bill Graves said:

“A lot of our members at the end of the day view the investment in infrastructure — and our associations’ role in shaping a positive outcome on roads and bridges — as our No. 1 priority. We keep getting ‘incompletes’ on our scorecard as a result of Congress’ political inability to get their arms around it,” Graves said in an interview with Transport Topics in advance of the Oct. 15-18 meeting in Grapevine, Texas.

He made the comments in mid-September, the same week Congress passed a six-month extension of the current highway funding law through March.

Graves called the development “terribly frustrating.”

“I think the expectation was that because the last reauthorization went through so many extensions, there would be a lesson learned. That [experience] would be instructive for Congress and the administration not to let it happen again.”

The most recent extension, signed by President Obama on Sept. 16, was the eighth since the law’s initial expiration date of Sept. 30, 2009.

The $286.4 billion law was signed on Aug. 10, 2005, by President Bush, replacing a six-year funding law that was extended 12 times over nearly two years until lawmakers reached a new agreement.

Looking ahead, Graves said he expects yet more extensions before a new long-term bill is passed.

“I just cannot imagine, in the political year of 2012, there will  be much room for agreement between the two political parties,” he said. 

Besides highway funding, the hours-of-service rule and the economic recovery are two of the other major topics likely to dominate MCE.

The new HOS rule is slated to be issued by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration in late October, shortly after MCE concludes.

While it is not yet clear whether FMCSA will go forward with a proposal to shorten driving hours to 10 from 11, among other changes, Graves said, ATA is not just sitting idle.

“We are already moving on multiple tracks to be prepared for whatever the outcome might be,” he said. Although trucking is hopeful there will not be major changes, “If there are elements of a rule that take away productivity and flexibility for our industry, we’re going to be ready to aggressively pursue whatever remedies are available to us, whether legal or legislative.”

Graves noted that at MCE in Phoenix last year, he suggested that things would be “bigger and better” when ATA got to Texas, much in the same way the state portrays itself.

He acknowledged that may have been a “slight overstatement,” but the business climate is better than a year ago.

“I think what we never anticipated was that the backdrop to our modest economic recovery would be such an uncertain political environment. I think that has a lot of people still sitting on the sidelines in terms of job creation and capital investment,” he said.

During a general session on the conference’s final day, Oct. 18, trucking leaders from four individual sectors will join together to share their perspectives on the recovery and future of the industry.

Scheduled to appear are Gary Salisbury, CEO of truckload fleet Fikes Truck Line; Reggie Dupré, CEO of tanker Dupré Logistics LLC; Steve Williams, chairman and CEO of flatbed carrier Maverick USA Inc.; and Douglas Stotlar, CEO of less-than-truckload firm Con-way Inc.

The panel will be presented by equipment manufacturer Freightliner Trucks and engine maker Cummins Inc. It is set to be moderated by Howard Abramson, publisher and editorial director of Transport Topics Publishing Group.

Graves said bringing together such an esteemed panel will provide valuable information to attendees.

“Everyone has been through the rough times . . . and now we are starting to see just a little bit of buoyancy in the economy,” he said. “If you’re a company still in business and now turning your attention to recovery, it would be interesting . . . to hear from some of the best-run companies to talk about how they’re managing their way forward, now that we are starting to see some positive signs.”

On Oct. 17, the annual “All Eyes on the Economy” luncheon will include Bob Costello, ATA’s chief economist, John Felmy, chief economist of the American Petroleum Institute, and U.S. Chamber of Commerce Chief Economist Martin Regalia.

MCE will also feature 17 educational sessions, including a track entitled “Good Drivers Keep You on the Road.”

Specific topics include reducing distracted driving, understanding drivers’ medical qualifications and lowering their medical costs, and ways to better recruit, hire and retain top drivers.

ATA officials said the emphasis on drivers this year for the sessions is related to the strain the federal government’s Compliance, Safety, Accountability safety ratings program is placing on the industry to make sure they are putting the best drivers behind the wheel.

The focus of another session is how the insurance market is interpreting CSA scores, while others will offer updates on new truck fuel-economy rules, labor developments and intermodal chassis ownership.

The effects of CSA and the ongoing shortage of qualified drivers on the industry can also be seen through the number of technology and driver safety and recruitment products that will be on display in the exhibit hall, ATA said. 

Even if the industry still faces uncertainties, Graves said he viewed returning to Grapevine — site of the 2006 MCE — as a positive.

“Texas is a great trucking state, so we are starting with a small advantage in that we are going to a state where we have a lot of members based. There are a lot of our people that call the Dallas-Fort Worth area home,” Graves said.

Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), whose district includes much of the Dallas County area, will add additional local flair to the conference.

He is scheduled to speak about the 2012 presidential and congressional elections — and the effect they could have on the trucking industry — during the ATA Advocacy and Government Affairs luncheon on Oct. 16.