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October 16, 2009 10:05 AM, EDT

Opinion: The Long Road Ahead

By Tommy Hodges
Chairman
American Trucking Associations

This Opinion piece appears in the Oct. 12 print edition of Transport Topics. Click here to subscribe today.

The trucking industry has always been a part of my life. My dad was a longhaul driver as far back as I can remember, and some of my earliest memories are of my mom taking my dad to go load his truck so he could make his runs.

Naturally, I gravitated toward the industry. I began working on the docks at Tennessee Carolina Transportation in 1965. A year later, I learned how to drive a tractor-trailer and drove city routes in Nashville for TCT during the day and pursued a degree at the University of Tennessee at Nashville in the evening. Uncle Sam summoned me in 1968, and I spent a year in Vietnam as a military police officer before returning to TCT as a dock supervisor and dispatcher.

I went to work for Spector Freight Systems in 1976 as a salesman and started working my way up in the transportation industry — from sales manager to terminal manager to vice president of sales and then president and owner.

Over the past several years, I’ve had the pleasure to serve as American Trucking Associations’ Small Carriers Committee chairman, chairman of the ATA Sustainability Task Force and ATA first vice chairman. It’s with a great degree of humility and great sense of honor that I now accept the chairmanship of ATA.

As I take on this new role, I look forward to visiting the state associations and talking to as many groups as possible, while we all continue to operate in uncertain times and await economic recovery and reauthorization of the high-way bill.

For a couple years now, it seems like we’ve heard nothing but bad news, given the run-up in diesel prices last year and the state of our economy. But that’s going to change, and I’m optimistic that the worst is behind us. Economists are predicting tremendous tonnage growth over the next 12 years. There’s going to be plenty of freight out there, and it’s important that we prepare now to make sure that we’re well-situated to handle the increase as it comes.

To meet this demand, it’s critical that our nation makes a serious commitment to highway infrastructure in the upcoming reauthorization bill and addresses the desperate need for repair and expansion, beginning with the worst freight bottlenecks. Addressing the deficiencies of our highway infrastructure directly affects our ability to provide our essential services to this country.

Our industry drives the economic engine of our great nation. We know better highways come at a price, and we’re willing to pay for it through an increase in the federal fuel tax — so long as the revenue is not diverted to other causes, goes solely toward infrastructure and is applied in an equitable manner.

Other collection methods, such as tolling or a vehicle-miles-traveled tax, cannot match the efficiency or equitability of the fuel tax. The fuel tax continues to serve as the most efficient approach, allowing more money to go directly toward critical infrastructure needs rather than wasteful collection costs.

It’s important that we step up to the plate and continue being leaders in this effort. Traffic congestion is a major impediment to our nation’s productivity and is a tremendous waste of precious natural resources.

For many years, our industry has worked to do a better job of conserving fuel and reducing emissions. Clean diesel technologies, used in engines since the early 2000s, continue to far exceed federal emission standards and expectations in their performance in cleaning up the nation’s air quality.

Our industry has paid dearly for the significant progress made in reducing nitrogen oxide and particulate matter, and now we’re looking to do the same with CO2. In addition to alleviating traffic congestion, we’d like to reduce traffic speeds, implement technologies to reduce idling and encourage Congress to permit the use of more productive vehicles to reduce fuel consumption. All these strat-egies will greatly contribute to the sustainability of our vital industry.

Regardless of the political and economic challenges facing our industry, we’ll figure out a way to come out on top. One thing I know is that truckers always figure out how to solve a problem. This quality is one of the most positive things we have going for our industry, and as the economy rebounds, the trucking industry is going to be a very nice place to be in. We’ve endured some very difficult times to get here, but the future looks good to me.

The author is chairman of Titan Transfer Inc., Shelbyville, Tenn., a full-service truckload carrier that also offers warehousing options through sister company Goggin Warehousing.