MONTREAL, Que. –There will be no honeymoon for Eric Gignac, elected this May to a two-year term as the president of the Quebec Trucking Association (QTA). “The summer will be hot,” he says.
Indeed: Nasty words to describe fuel prices have no tread left on them, the desperately-needed Montreal A-30 ring road project is again in deep doo doo, the government fiddles while the trucking industry leans into the sickening slide of a jackknife…when is the top going to blow?
“I know that something will happen in the next few months, because transportation companies are being hit from all sides,” says Gignac. “Companies are asking us what we should do? Block the roads? We don’t think that that is the right way to do it, but we have to make the government and public understand. We want some fiscal way to reduce our costs, make the government understand that with the economy getting slower and the southbound corridor going down, this is a bad time to implement new laws on the trucking industry. Let us go through the storm and we will see after, but don’t put any more things on our shoulders. Give us some tools.”
One might hope that if anyone can get the Quebec government to wake up to the growing crisis, it is Gignac. Not only is he the first QTA president to come from a major fleet, he was born into the business. He is the grandson of Paul Guilbault, who founded in 1929 what is now Groupe Guilbault, and the number three carrier in the province. He is also its CEO and has national contacts and perspective as a member of the executive committee of the Canadian Trucking Alliance.
“Sometimes ears will be more open if I make the call. But there is fear that members will think that we only discuss problems the majors have. But I want to make sure members know I am there for them. My phone is there for any size fleet to tell me about their problem,” Gignac says.
And man, did he hear about problems at the QTA’s 57th annual meeting (Congres) this spring:”In the last 15-20 years at the Congres we were always saying ‘Everything is running fine, we are making money, buying trucks, life is good’.This year people were saying, ‘We are in (f–ing) trouble.’ We are not shy about sharing that things are not going well. We see that the customers are taking the lead and twisting the lemon. The spirit at the 57th Congres was not optimistic.”
The sad thing is that there are solutions to some of these problems, but there is no indication that Quebec City has, in any profound sense, ever understood where truck transportation truly fits on the map.
“I think the government does not respect the transportation industry enough. We are probably the most important industry in Quebec, but we change transport ministers every two years,” Gignac says.
He wants to change that: “I want to make the QTA more important in public affairs. I want an association where the trucking industry or the economy of Quebec roads has to go through us. Say that all trucking companies were to close for two or three days. What would happen? I want everyone to understand what would happen. The public does not understand that.”
Hwy. 185 and Montreal are the two remaining bottlenecks in the Trans-Canada between Halifax and Toronto, and are roadblocks to letting carriers run Long Combination Vehicles (LCV) unhindered on this stretch. Yet LCVs look like salvation for carriers, as one twin-53 consumes some 35% less diesel than two tractor- trailers.
Rather than focusing on twinning the last 80-kilometres of the 185, Transports Quebec is throwing money everywhere else like a sailor on shore leave. Quebec City saw fit to plunk the A-30 smack on territory the Kahnawa:ke Indians claim is not the government’s to pave over. That chicken came home to roost this spring, temporarily bringing work on the A-30 to a halt.
“It is our role to make the government, the Chamber of Commerce in Montreal, understand the impact on the economy when they work on the infrastructure. Why do they invest so many millions to build a highway between Quebec and Chicoutimi, and not on the A-30?” Gignac asks. “We do not have the A-30 and if the government goes ahead with the Turcot Interchange (rebuild in Montreal), the economy will go down. New Brunswick will allow LCVs intra- N. B. in June. Ontario is talking about an LCV project (and so is Nova Scotia),” says Gignac.
Yet not only is a fully-twinned Halifax-Toronto corridor, required for LCVs, years away, Transports Quebec will not even let carriers run them inside Quebec year-round.
“We have been running LCVs for 20 years. We want to be allowed to run them 12 months a year. (Transport Minister) Madame Boulet promised us in 2007 that we could run LCVs 12 months a year. She backed off on that promise two weeks before the implementation date. It will be me who raises the LCV subject with the government. My company is probably the biggest LCV user in Quebec. It is the best single way to cut our costs,” Gignac says. “Madame Boulet is not listening.”
Other legislation could be changed to aid the industry, Gignac points out: “We are fighting against the rail. The railroads are not paying taxes for their properties. CN is not paying taxes for its yards. But we are paying our taxes. The taxation situation for the trucking industry is not fair. The depreciation rate for us is lower than for other industries. I don’t see any goodwill from the Quebec government (for helping reduce taxes on fuel).
“The law says that I have to invest 1% of my gross salaries to train my people. We are the only province in Canada that has to do that. If we don’t invest it in training, we have
to write a cheque to the government. I would like that law to disappear.”
Gignac wants to do seminars with Quebec carriers on energy-saving technology and intentionally or not, he is showing by example that slowing down is good economics. In January Guilbault reduced its trucks’ top speed to 93 km/h and, says Gignac, “I can tell you we are saving lots of money. We have to find any way to reduce our fuel consumption. It is like a war.”
He wants to address driver burnout and points to a success story within Guilbault where the union has reduced dues as an incentive to bring retired drivers back to the job. The QTA has hired Frederic Francois, an expert on cost prices, to help member carriers run their businesses more effectively.
But the big theme on his mind seems to be unity and strength in the industry, like bringing more small carriers and the two or three missing major fleets into the QTA. “If we want to be listened to,” he says, “we have to be stronger.”