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October 29, 2007 8:00 AM, EDT

Trucking Faces Challenges, ATA Says

Federation Resolute Despite Difficult Forecasts

By Sean McNally, Senior Reporter
This story appears in the Oct. 29 print edition of Transport Topics.

ORLANDO, Fla. — Trucking executives going through a recession in their industry heard predictions that more hard times for them lay ahead in politics and the economy, but remained optimistic and prepared to take an active role in shaping their future.
That future includes a new, more proactive approach to dealing with safety and environmental regulations, as well as pressing leaders in Washington on such key issues as hours of service and highway financing.
“In spite of the economic outlook, in spite of the political outlook, in spite of $87 a barrel of oil, $3 diesel prices, still cannibalizing one another for drivers — there’s a whole list of things out there — the mood here was relatively, I’m not sure I would say optimistic, but it certainly wasn’t pessimistic,” American Trucking Associations President Bill Graves said.
“It is just an acceptance of these are the times we’re living in and this too shall pass. We’ve all survived in this industry to this point; those of us who are here have all seen this before,” Graves told Transport Topics Oct. 23 at the conclusion of ATA’s Management Conference & Exhibition here.
In looking at trucking’s challenges, Graves highlighted the “pretty sobering news” presented on Oct. 22 during the yearly “All Eyes on the Economy” panel (see story, p. 18).
ATA Chief Economist Bob Costello told trucking executives that “freight volume could get a little worse before it gets better,” owing mostly to what panelist Nigel Gault from consultant Global Insight called “a downturn of historic proportions” in the housing market.
The trucking leaders also heard political commentators forecasting a strengthening national shift to Democrats from Republicans in Congress and probably the White House next year.
Speaking Oct. 20, Democratic political fundraiser Terry McAuliffe predicted that his party would gain seats in both the Senate and House of Representatives and declared, “get ready for Hillary Clinton, folks.”
Political commentator John Kasich, a former Republican congressman, agreed with McAuliffe, although not as enthusiastically. “The pendulum has swung against us . . . the next election is going to be really, really difficult,” he said.
Graves said that for ATA members, those assessments at the government affairs luncheon “had to be a little sobering for folks.”
“We’re likely to have some political challenges,” Graves said, “but with that comes the opportunity for us to be, if you will, a much more bipartisan organization that perhaps we’ve historically been.”
Recognizing the growing political strength of issues relating to greenhouse gas production and its relation to global warming, ATA’s board of directors approved a plan aimed at reducing the industry’s carbon footprint.
“This is a tremendous opportunity for the trucking industry,” said G. Tommy Hodges, chairman of Titan Transfer Inc., who led ATA’s efforts on the issue.
Graves, in his first “state of the industry” address in his five years as the president, called on ATA’s members to be more proactive on environmental and other issues such as highway finance.
Particularly in the arena of highway finance, Graves said ATA was “an early leader in advancing a visionary agenda” on highway issues.
Patrick Quinn, the immediate past chairman of ATA, said the commission he sits on will issue its report to Congress by the end of the year and was likely to back an increase in the fuel tax (see story, p. 14).
While the weakened economy was one area of concern, a recent survey by the American Transportation Research Institute showed that hours of service had become trucking’s top worry.
Since a July court ruling striking parts of the rule, the industry has waited to see how regulators would address the concerns of the court. Graves has predicted the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration would try and retain the struck provisions.
FMCSA Administrator John Hill said trucking will have to wait for answers to those questions, telling TT he “would expect there to be some kind of announcement toward the end of November” (see story, p. 15).
Hill also addressed the issue of safety technology, positing that mandates for life-saving devices, such as lane departure warning systems and stability control, could be included in the next highway bill due to be written in 2009 (see story, p. 24).
The safety issue also was present in a pair of efforts aimed at bolstering safer driving — one announced by the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance and the other by ATA’s insurance task force (see stories, p. 15).
CVSA announced the start of Operation Safe Driver, aimed at reducing crashes by discouraging unsafe driving behavior.
Meanwhile, ATA’s insurance task force, which said it was giving $10,000 to six states to push for primary seat belt laws, was the beneficiary of two fundraisers, the annual gold tournament and an auction in the exhibition hall.
A large crowd also turned out to hear a panel discussion on China.
 “This will be the next great trucking economy,” Schneider National President Christopher Lofgren said (see story, p. 14).
Leaders did take time to enjoy themselves at receptions — highlighted by musicians Bruce Hornsby and Ricky Skaggs at the annual banquet and Sheryl Crow at Freightliner’s customer appreciation dinner. Peter Greenberg, travel editor of NBC’s Today Show, spoke at the annual spouse business meeting, sharing tips on how to get the best travel deals.
Staff Reporter Eric Miller and Managing Editor Bruce Harmon contributed to this report.