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April 20, 2015 3:45 AM, EDT

Industry Execs Scold Congress For Indecision

By Rip Watson, Senior Reporter

This story appears in the April 20 print edition of Transport Topics.

ORLANDO, Fla. — Executives from four of the largest U.S. transportation companies last week directed a clear message at federal lawmakers: Do what’s needed to support infrastructure improvements now or risk real damage to the economy and competitiveness down the road.

“There has to be a strategy to help the shipping and consuming public,” said Jack Holmes, president of UPS Freight, the less-than-truckload division of UPS Inc., which tops the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest for-hire carriers in the United States and Canada.

Holmes spoke here April 13 at the Nasstrac annual meeting and was joined by others representing every facet of trucking. He emphasized the need to make Congress and others in Washington understand the competitive implications of not addressing needs for road funding.

The comments were made while Congress is debating what to do about highway funding, either through a continuing resolution before May 31 or a new, long-term highway bill.

Officials such as John Cutler, counsel for Nasstrac, said there was little chance of a long-term highway bill in this congressional session.

“We have to get our elected officials to do their job,” said Henry Maier, president of the Ground unit of FedEx Corp., which is No. 2 on the for-hire TT100.

“The No. 1 cause of tire failures is potholes. Commerce drives the economy of the U.S.,” he said, and the lack of dependable infrastructure funding is “a huge drag on our economy right now.”

Maier cited the fact that multiple states have had to postpone major projects in an environment where transportation spending has been handled through 32 temporary spending actions since 2009. “We are hearing nothing coming out of Washington that says, ‘We are going to deal with this,’ ” he said.

Derek Leathers, president of No. 14 Werner Enterprises, said lobbyists in Washington need to be persuaded to weigh in on infrastructure issues.

He said it was surprising when he asked shippers to get lobbyists to help convince leaders of infrastructure’s importance and the reply was: “We would like to do that, but we have a policy that [lobbying] is just for our specific industry.”

Leathers said firms need to illustrate the strong connection between the shippers’ individual industries and the supply chain. “I can’t see how [infrastructure issues] can be extricated from the issues your own company pursues,” he said.

Judy McReynolds, CEO of ArcBest Corp., cited the need to address the most congested routes.

Maier and Holmes offered the potential nationwide introduction of 33-foot trailers as one step that could simultaneously improve productivity, add competitiveness for U.S. businesses and reduce the driver shortage. The driver issue would be addressed by reducing the number of trucks needed to move the same amount of freight, using trailers with 18% more cubic capacity than industry standard 28-foot units.

“This could be done very simply,” Maier said, if Congress can approve legislation to allow the use of the longer equipment, which he called a “simple and elegant solution for the package sector.”

Maier also noted the strain on the infrastructure would be reduced by eliminating 6.6 million truck miles if longer LTL trailers are used.

In addition, he told TT that if 33-footers are allowed there would be a five- to seven-year transition period, which would require significant capital investment and create opportunities for trailer manufacturers and suppliers who can convert 28-foot units to the longer configuration.

Less than 5% of FedEx Ground’s trailers are 33-foot units, he said, used now in states such as Florida.

Holmes stressed the need to improve productivity as increasing federal trucking regulation constricts capacity and discourages further investment in equipment.

Holmes also said LTL and package carriers have the “high ground” with 33-foot trailers on the truck size-and-weight issue in terms of safety and the reduced congestion.

“This solution makes too much sense to be against it,” he said.