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October 29, 2018 5:15 PM, EDT

ATA's Chris Spear Calls for Unity, Collaboration Going Forward

ATA President Chris Spear Spear delivers his state of the industry speech at MCE 2018. (John Sommers II for Transport Topics)

AUSTIN, Texas — American Trucking Associations President Chris Spear delivered a message of unity, partnership and the importance of representation at the Management Conference & Exhibition on Oct. 29.

During his state of the industry address here, Spear outlined victories and challenges of the past year and indicated partnerships and goals that will shape the federation’s future. He expressed intent to strengthen partnerships with state association leaders, law enforcement officers and independent contractors.

Spear announced that ATA will unveil the Independent Contractor Ambassadors Program later this week, which will represent the interests of independent operators.

“For those who choose this profession, you need a voice,” Spear said. “These ambassadors will represent independent truckers before key decision-makers, explaining firsthand why they choose this entrepreneurial path that provides them flexibility, the opportunity to build their own business and to spend more time with family.”

Spear lauded the success of President Donald Trump’s tax reform plan, which was signed into law in December. The tax cuts resulting from this law have allowed trucking firms to invest in employees, environmentally friendly equipment and new technology, according to Spear.

Spear on stage

Spear took center stage at MCE on Oct. 29. (John Sommers II for Transport Topics)

He noted that the flourishing economy has injected vigor into the industry, pointing out that for-hire truck tonnage is up nearly 8% year-to-date and that the industry generated more than $700 billion last year (an increase of 3.5% from the previous year).

Although Spear celebrated the benefits of tax reform, he didn’t shy away from the legislative disappointment of failing to include language establishing uniformity on meal-and-rest-break requirements in the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018.

Spear compared ATA’s four-year legislative fight to show that California’s meal-and-rest-break requirements impede federal law to trench warfare. California law requires employers to provide a “duty-free” 30-minute meal break for employees who work more than five hours a day as well as a second duty-free 30-minute meal break for those who work more than 10 hours a day.

ATA petitioned the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration in late September to determine that California’s meal-and-rest-break requirements are pre-empted under federal regulations.

“We’ve witnessed a nexus between lawmakers’ willingness to do their job and Congress becoming a sanctuary for obstruction,” Spear said. “Obstruction is no substitute for the truth. Approval of ATA’s petition will put safety first, preserve interstate commerce and deliver justice on behalf of our industry. I am confident that justice will soon prevail.”

With the electronic logging device mandate firmly in effect, Spear called upon FMCSA to make “sensible” changes to hours-of-service rules to increase flexibility.

FMCSA officials have demonstrated willingness to hear from truckers on their concerns. The agency has hosted several listening sessions over the past two months to discuss potential changes to the rules.

Another goal is working with federal regulators to allow hair testing as an alternative means of employment screening. Spear also pressed FMCSA to make sensible adjustments to the agency’s Compliance, Safety and Accountability program, a data-driven initiative to reduce crashes.

ATA’s president also pledged to continue working with industry partners and the U.S. Department of Transportation to embrace autonomous vehicle technologies in a safe and productive manner. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao on Oct. 4 unveiled AV 3.0, the agency’s policy update of autonomous vehicle technology guidelines.

Spectator captures Spear's speech

A spectator captures Spears address at MCE. (John Sommers II for Transport Topics)

Another chief goal is to address one of trucking’s most pressing problems, the industrywide driver shortage. ATA this year has reported the shortage at more than 50,000. Once again the driver shortage ranked No. 1 on the American Transportation Research Institute’s critical issues report, which was released Oct. 29.

Young people present a solution, Spear said. However, one hurdle is that federal law does not permit 18- to 21-year-olds to drive Class 8 trucks across state lines, although 48 states allow people in this age range to drive intrastate.

Spear said ATA supports the Developing Responsible Individuals for a Vibrant Economy, or DRIVE-Safe Act, which proposes a two-step training program for prospective young drivers to complete once they obtain commercial driver licenses.

“Despite all that, some of the so-called safety groups oppose this proposal outright. Where do these same obstructionists stand on sending an 18-year-old off to fight our wars, to defend our freedom?” Spear said. “We can no longer afford to wait until drivers come our way. We must be allowed to compete for the same talent as other industries and teach them to safely and responsibly operate this equipment.”

Spear cited finding a sound infrastructure funding mechanism as another goal. He said the debate over infrastructure legislation likely will ramp up in 2019. Trump’s infrastructure plan includes $200 billion in federal funding to reach an investment total of $1.5 trillion.

Spear said the only “true fix” for infrastructure funding lies in the Build America Fund plan, which would be supported by a federal fuel usage fee built into the price of transportation fuels collected at the terminal rack. Spear pointed out that fuel tax hikes are administratively cheaper than tolling or “fake funding” such as public-private partnerships.

He said ATA will continue the fight against truck tolling, which exists in Rhode Island and faces consideration in Virginia. Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb recently announced an infrastructure plan will rely on a 35% increase to the rates that pertain to trucks on the Indiana Toll Road.

“That’s extortion, and it’s got to stop,” Spear said. “ATA has an obligation to flank our state association executives and protect the federation from flawed and potentially contagious tolling policies that could eventually have national implications.”