Spear goes on offensive in ATA address

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ATA president and CEO Chris Spear

AUSTIN, Texas – American Trucking Associations (ATA) president and CEO Chris Spear went on the offensive during his annual state of the industry address today, calling for changes to everything from minimum driving ages to new drug testing tools and a massive infrastructure investment.

He even announced a new Independent Contractor Ambassadors Program to represent independent truckers, responding to the “concerted erosion of the traditional independent contractor model.”

The various calls for action come against a backdrop of an industry that is clearly booming. For-hire truck tonnage in the country is up about 8% year to date, and according to American Trucking Trends the industry generated US $700 billion in economic activity last year, up 3.5% over 2016.

“We are ordering a lot of new equipment. At current build rates it would take North America’s heavy truck manufacturers nine months to build all the Class 8 units in backlog. We are now witnessing the fastest growth the trucking industry has experienced in 20 years,” Spear said.

NAFTA freight alone generated US $6.6 billion in revenue last year, and the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) will govern nearly US $1.2 trillion in trade. “We want to up those numbers, and having a revised agreement that provides sustainable growth for our industry is key,” he said. “We commend the president and his team of negotiators for reaching an agreement with Mexico – holding U.S. investments in Mexican trucking companies harmless – and bringing terms with Canada to a close.”

It wasn’t the only reason he applauded U.S. President Donald Trump, and shared how the association was an early supporter of federal tax reforms that are now a reality.

“That’s your money. You earned it and it belongs to you, not the government,” Spear said, noting the tax reform is now fueling a national economy with an unemployment rate below 4%.

Still, the association is hardly willing to slow its lobbying efforts.

“We have unfinished business in Washington. Our foes continue to sow the seeds of distrust and mistruths, spreading their own narrative about our industry,” said the man who was introduced as the association’s Warrior in Chief.

He described the debate over F4A – forcing drivers and carriers to adhere to state rules rather than uniform federal rules — as “trench warfare”, and noted how ATA has petitioned against California meal and rest breaks that exceed federal standards. “The sheer lack of available parking alone has forced our drivers to park in unsafe conditions, putting themselves and the motoring public at an elevated risk,” he said.

Now that electronic logging devices (ELDs) are in place, and hours of service violations are at an all-time low, it’s time for the U.S. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to update hours of service rules, he added. “ELDs make more data available to the industry than ever before, enabling ATA to advocate common-sense improvements to these rules and allowing us to tighten the reigns on detention time.”

Against the backdrop of legalized marijuana, Spear continued ATA’s call for more drug testing tools and a drug clearinghouse for test results.

“We’ve seen nine states and Canada legalize recreational marijuana, all while the nation fights the tragic spread of opioid use. This reality points again to our values and how this great industry can advocate a safe and drug-free-workforce,” Spear said. “ATA is working with federal regulators to finally allow hair testing as an alternative means of employment screening.”

He also echoed calls for the federal government to allow for truck drivers between the ages of 18 and 21.

Forty-eight states already allow 18-year-olds to drive intrastate. But the ATA is advocating to allow them to drive across state lines if they meet strict requirements for on-duty time, training, safety systems and experienced co-drivers.

“Despite all that, some of the so-called safety groups oppose this proposal outright,” he said. “Let’s cut to the chase – where were these same safety groups when 48 states passed laws allowing an 18-year-old to drive a commercial vehicle intrastate? … Where do these same obstructionists stand on sending an 18-year-old off to fight our wars?”

“We can no longer afford to wait until drivers come our way,” he added. We must be allowed to compete for the same talent as other industries and teach them to safety and responsibly operate this equipment.”

“The chronic driver and technician shortage is now top-fold national news — fueled by consumer confidence, a well-above-average retirement age, and erroneous claims that our trucks will soon be driverless.”

The ATA is also looking to streamline state credentials, open trucking career paths to more veterans, and help channel urban talent into the industry with an emphasis on minorities and women.

Even the roads on which they travel were a focus.

The ATA is pushing for new infrastructure investments through a proposed Build American Fund. While trucks already pay half the Highway Trust Fund, the association wants trucking to pay US $340 billion more over the next decade. “The Build America Fund is real money, not fake funding like P3s [public-private partnerships] and asset recycling,” Spear stressed. “Our proposal is less than one cent on the dollar to administer, shores up the near-broke Trust Fund, and doesn’t add a dime to our nation’s deficit.”

Three carriers and ATA have even filed suit in Rhode Island, arguing that its truck tolls are unconstitutional. “Truck tolling schemes are now being considered in several states, including Connecticut, my home state of Virginia,” he said. “In Indiana, the governor recently announced a 35% toll increase for trucks on a privately owned Indiana toll road. In return the state gets a $1-billion sweetheart loan for non-infrastructure projects – leaving the trucking industry on the hook to pay it all back.”

It’s ramping up the group’s litigation center for the fights to come.

“I’ve told our legal team to bring me targets,” Spear said.

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John G. Smith is the editorial director of Newcom Media's trucking and supply chain publications -- including Today's Trucking, trucknews.com, TruckTech, Transport Routier, and Road Today. The award-winning journalist has covered the trucking industry since 1995.

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