March 27, 2017 4:00 AM, EDT

Trump Meets With Trucking Leaders

Roundtable Discussion Focuses on Health Care, Infrastructure
Joyce N. Boghosian

This story appears in the March 27 print edition of Transport Topics.

WASHINGTON — Trucking leaders met with President Trump to lend their support to his efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act and to open a dialogue that they hope will lead to further discussion of the nation’s infrastructure.

“You have experienced a crippling rise in premiums,” Trump said during a portion of the March 23 meeting that was open to the press, and lamented that the coverage mandates in the ACA have forced fleets to “do things you don’t want to do.”

After the meeting, which also included a closed-door session, American Trucking Associations President Chris Spear told Transport Topics that he felt progress was made.

“We have shown that the current Affordable Care Act is just plain unaffordable,” Spear said.

PHOTO GALLERY: Images from trucking's visit to the White House

For UPS Freight, health care costs have grown to become 2½ times more expensive than the costs of fuel, Rich McArdle, the carrier’s president, told TT before the event. And at James Burg Trucking, health-care costs increased $300,000 last year, company President James Burg said. Burg said that while his company previously had covered employee health care, rising costs have led it to introduce a plan under which employees must pay.

“They’re just starting to understand,” he said, adding that some of his employees thought the ACA would broaden their options.

“We cannot grow this economy if this industry cannot afford health care,” Spear told reporters after the meeting.

While a vote on Trump’s American Health Care Act had been delayed as of TT’s press time, Spear expressed support for the legislation. “We think this is the bill to get the job done,” he told reporters after the meeting with Trump.

That is certainly the hope for David Congdon, CEO at less-than-truckload carrier Old Dominion Freight Line, who acknowledged that health care is “costing an awful lot more” than it has cost. “We are looking forward to working with the president to help him shape something that is sustainable.”

The trucking industry began sounding alarms about the potential costs of ACA compliance before the law took effect seven years ago.

And, in October 2013, two years before large employers were required to comply, a survey of fleets conducted by Transport Capital Partners found that only 8% of carriers believed that the law would not change their business. It found then that small carriers were more likely to report adverse effects from the health-care law than large carriers, with 30% of them considering dropping health-care coverage for employees compared with 10% of large carriers.

Congdon and others in attendance were hopeful that the visit with the president is the first of more to come and that future visits might turn to another hot-button issue for the industry — infrastructure.

Congdon even has a pitch ready for the president: a fuel tax to be collected at the fuel rack that is dedicated to infrastructure funding — more specifically, for highways and bridges. While he acknowledged that the meeting wasn’t about infrastructure, he was hopeful that the session would “open the door to subsequent meetings” during which infrastructure could be discussed.

That sentiment was shared by ATA Chairman Kevin Burch, who also is the president of Jet Express, based in Dayton, Ohio. Burch told TT before the Trump event that he was hopeful the industry could, in later meetings, “tell a story about our workplace,” meaning the nation’s roads, and help Trump craft a plan to address the industry’s infrastructure needs.

ATA in December convened an infrastructure task force composed of leaders from member companies and charged it with evaluating “all potential sources of funding for our roads and bridges,” Spear said when the group was created.

Then, in February, the task force met with Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and congressional leaders and urged them to act aggressively to address the nation’s long- neglected infrastructure woes.

The American Society of Civil Engineers this year graded the nation’s infrastructure D+, just as it was assessed in 2013 when the group issued its previous ranking.

Trump, who wants to dedicate $1 trillion to infrastructure over a 10-year period, acknowledged the need in the meeting.

“We are going to make sure that America’s infrastructure is the best in the world,” Trump said.

That spirit of optimism hung over the proceedings, which began on the South Lawn of the White House, where two trucks brought by ATA provided the backdrop for a meet-and-greet with Trump and Vice President Mike Pence before the roundtable discussion.

One driver, John Lex of Wal-Mart Transportation, on hand for the meeting with truckers, which included a dozen elite truck drivers on the ATA Road Team, snapped a selfie with Trump in the cab of one of the trucks. Trump, appearing to enjoy the moment, pulled the truck’s air horn several times. Later, in the meeting, as word began circling that the health-care vote might be delayed, Trump joked that he should have been spending the time he was using to meet with the fleets to wrangle votes.

Turning more serious, he expressed gratitude for the industry’s support.

“You’re the biggest truckers in the business, and it’s great to be with you,” he said. “I very much appreciate your support. You are the leaders. No one knows America like truckers know America. We love your spirit.”