Fleet Owner: Obama pushes infrastructure investment, aims to slash red tape

By Brian Straight

Saying that he will use executive actions when appropriate, President Barack Obama promised to slash the red tape holding back infrastructure projects in this country during his fifth State of the Union address last night. He also reiterated his administration’s promise to implement further fuel efficiency targets for heavy-duty trucks beyond the current regulations that begin phasing in this year.

Noting the partisanship that exists in Washington, Obama asked Congress a simple question: “The question for everyone in this chamber, running through every decision we make this year, is whether we are going to help or hinder this progress,” he said, noting that progress was made in this area with the recent budget deal.

But, he added, more needs to be done.

“Our job is to reverse these trends. It won’t happen right away, and we won’t agree on everything. But what I offer tonight is a set of concrete, practical proposals to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class, and build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class. Some require Congressional action, and I’m eager to work with all of you. But America does not stand still – and neither will I. So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do,” he said.

One of those first executive actions was his announcement that he was boosting the minimum wage for all new federal contract workers to $10.10/hr.

The next test may come in the form of slashing red tape for infrastructure projects. Proposing to tie infrastructure investment to tax reform, Obama hopes to “create jobs rebuilding our roads, upgrading our ports, unclogging our commutes – because in today’s global economy, first-class jobs gravitate to first-class infrastructure. We’ll need Congress to protect more than three million jobs by finishing transportation and waterways bills this summer. But I will act on my own to slash bureaucracy and streamline the permitting process for key projects, so we can get more construction workers on the job as fast as possible.”

Dept. of Transportation secretary Anthony Foxx said he would work to help bring Obama’s vision of an improved infrastructure to fruition.

“I will be working throughout the year from the federal to the local level to build more infrastructure while growing jobs now and making more jobs possible with first-rate transportation networks,” Foxx said in a statement. “We will also build ladders of opportunity, connecting every American to the global economy. I was especially glad to hear the president call on Congress to finish a much-needed transportation bill this summer, and the proposal to fund that bill through corporate tax reform can and should be done on a bipartisan basis.”

The American Trucking Assns. (ATA), though pleased with the comments, remained concerned about the lack of concrete ideas on how to increase investment.

“While we appreciate President Obama making reference to the need for infrastructure investment, we remain disappointed in the continued lack of specificity when he discusses funding,” said Bill Graves, ATA president and CEO, in a statement immediately following the address. “While it is critically important to the nation that Congress and the administration come together on a multiyear highway bill this year, we believe that until the administration puts forward a serious, user-based funding proposal we will risk going over the Highway Trust Fund ‘fiscal cliff’ in the near term and be woefully underfunded to meet the longer term needs of the nation.”

A mid-summer hearing in 2013 on the Highway Trust Fund included testimony from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) that indicated “the revenues derived from existing excise [fuel] taxes will fall far short of covering the spending that would result from continuing to obligate funds in the amounts provided for 2013, as adjusted for inflation.

“The current trajectory of the Highway Trust Fund is unsustainable,” CBO stated. “Starting in fiscal year 2015, the trust fund will have insufficient resources to meet all of its obligations, resulting in steadily accumulating shortfalls.”

“It was an honor to attend the State of the Union, but the president’s proposal was sorely lacking in details and comes up short of what the nation needs to maintain our economic competitiveness,” Graves added. “Trucks use our roads and bridges to move more than 70% of the nation’s freight and if do not address our infrastructure deficit the system will soon become a drag on our economic recovery and hinder our future growth.”

Reaction to the speech from Patrick Jones, executive director and CEO of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Assn., the worldwide association representing toll facility owners and operators, remained in line with that organization’s goals – providing states more flexibility in funding options, including the ability to toll more roads.

“The transportation funding needs of states are great. The resources of the federal government are limited. Therefore, we ask Congress and the president to give states maximum flexibility to meet their individual transportation funding needs, including the use of tolling on the existing Interstate highway system,” Jones said. “While we respect the president’s willingness ‘to create jobs rebuilding our roads,’ we know that no one source of revenue can be sufficient to build, maintain, and reconstruct our nation’s bridges, tunnels, and highways. Now is the time for Congress, the president, and other elected leaders to seriously consider all options to meet our country’s transportation funding needs. Tolling is one of the most powerful, effective, and proven tools in the funding toolbox.”

Terry O’Sullivan, general president of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, was also pleased with the speech and hoped that it could lead to a long-term highway reauthorization to succeed MAP-21, which expires later this year.

“Hopefully the president’s remarks start the engine of passing a long-term reauthorization of the MAP-21 Highway bill. Now it’s time for Congress to move forward before our nation’s Highway Trust Fund runs out of gas. Passing a new long-term bill, for at least 6 years to come, could save hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars,” said O’Sullivan. “Adjusting user fees for inflation, along with new bipartisan proposals for infrastructure banks and loan guarantees to develop more public-private partnerships, will help reduce a deficit that is expected to reach 15 billion dollars this year alone. These new investments in rebuilding America’s roads and bridges will create family-supporting jobs that help more working families earn their way into the middle class, one of the most powerful drivers for economic growth.”

Earlier this week, Bill Shuster, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said it is that committee’s goal to introduce and move out of committee a comprehensive transportation bill before August.

Obama also touted the ongoing growth of natural gas, particularly in transportation.

“If extracted safely, [natural gas] is the bridge fuel that can power our economy with less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change,” he said. “Businesses plan to invest almost $100 billion in new factories that use natural gas. I’ll cut red tape to help states get those factories built, and this Congress can help by putting people to work building fueling stations that shift more cars and trucks from foreign oil to American natural gas.”

He also reiterated his administration’s previously announced plan for a new round of fuel efficiency standards for heavy trucks.

“When we rescued our automakers, for example, we worked with them to set higher fuel efficiency standards for our cars. In the coming months, I’ll build on that success by setting new standards for our trucks, so we can keep driving down oil imports and what we pay at the pump,” Obama said.

Fuel efficiency standards are already starting to be phased in this year under joint agreement between the U.S. Dept. of Transportation (DOT) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), along with input from the trucking industry, environmental groups, and state governments. Those rules, set to go into effect in stages between 2014 and 2018 and impose different fuel efficiency targets based on the size and weight of the vehicle involved:

Most, but not all, tractor-trailers will be required to achieve up to approximately a 20% reduction in fuel consumption and GHG emissions by model year 2018, saving up to 4 gals. of fuel for every 100 mi. traveled.

For heavy-duty pickup trucks and vans, separate standards are required for gasoline-powered and diesel trucks. These vehicles will be required to achieve up to about a 15% reduction in fuel consumption and GHG emissions by model year 2018. Under the finalized standards a typical gasoline or diesel powered heavy-duty pickup truck or van could save 1 gal. of fuel for every 100 mi. of travel.

Vocational vehicles – including delivery trucks, buses, and garbage trucks – will be required to reduce fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 10% by model year 2018. These trucks could save an average of 1gal. of fuel for every 100 mi. of travel.

Earlier in 2013, the Obama administration announced a new round of standards for 2017 and beyond, although specifics have not been released as of yet.

Fleet Owner: Looking ahead for trucking

By Sean Kilcarr

A lot of confidence is being expressed about the future of the trucking right now, despite the industry’s many well-known challenges, the foremost being a shortage of drivers, ever-increasing regulatory pressures, and of course the ever-present concern that the still-sluggish growth pattern that’s dogged the U.S. economy for years now could suddenly turn into a full-out stall.

Even with all those negative caveats thrown in, though, many industry denizens think the outlook for trucking is a lot brighter right now than it’s been for a while.

Take Philip Byrd’s comments at the recent American Truck Dealers (ATD) convention in New Orleans this past week. Byrd – chairman of American Trucking Associations (ATA) and president and CEO of Bulldog Hiway Express in Charleston, S.C. – said that although fuel costs and driver recruitment remain industry-wide challenges, he believes the forecast for heavy-duty trucking “remains bright.”

“Currently trucks carry 68.5% of tonnage [and] we project in 2024 trucks will carry 70% of tonnage,” he noted.

Dick Witcher, the outgoing ATD chairman, elaborated on Byrd’s comments with his own positive perspective on trucking’s future.

“Trucking is undoubtedly one of America’s greatest industries,” he said. “It employs over 6 million people nationwide. It moves 9.4 billion tons of freight annually. It delivers millions of goods out of factories and onto the shelves of our stores and businesses.”

Yet Witcher thinks that freight volume will only grow as the expansion of the Panama Canal – to cite but one example – is set for completion in 2015.

“Commercial vessels—four times larger than the ships which pass through the canal today—will have easier access to our ports in the East and Gulf Coasts, allowing for larger shipments at a faster rate,” he explained. “With more cargo coming on a single ship, I believe commerce patterns will change—a 400 mile radius from any Gulf or Eastern port can get cargo to the heartland in one day not three.”

Witcher thinks that will lead to new and/or restructured distribution and redistribution centers that will change the economics of trucking and move more owners to lower-cost Class 6 and 7 vehicles. “And as railways move only about 15% of international shipping containers, trucks move almost all the rest,” he stressed.

Yet Witcher also emphasized some big challenges trucking as a whole will need to successfully navigate in order to fully benefit from such big potential growth in freight volumes.

“The regulatory agencies of our government can have a deep impact on how we run our business day to day, with one noted commentator recently described the regulatory agencies as the ‘Fourth Branch of Government’ [as it] is their purpose it is to refine and implement the laws that Congress passes,” he said. “Their rulemakings, their compliance guidelines, their enforcement policies – all of these deeply affect the public, our industry, and the very fabric of how we function.”

Witcher said a prime near-term concern for trucking should be ever stricter federal emissions standards and fuel economy standards with the next series of such standards poised to hit in 2018.

“It takes 37 billion gallons of diesel fuel to move all of the freight and cargo that we have every year,” he explained. “We need to make sure that new fuel economy standards for trucks are not only good for the environment, but fair—and affordable—for the people who make them, sell them, and drive them.”

He also touched on something that that ATD’s representatives discovered in their recent conversations with Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) staff about plans for the 2018 emissions: most simply don’t understand the nuts-and-bolts of the trucking business at all.

“We came away amazed by the lack of understanding about our industry which they are jointly regulating,” Witcher noted. “Do you know they actually asked if a trailer came with a new tractor and why did trucks need to be so different from one another?”

On a positive note, though, he said both EPA and NHTSA promised to stay in touch with ATD and other industry groups as they recognized the last rounds of emissions regulations have not been a case study for success.

“They see the average age of a truck has increased and only 30% of trucks are in compliance with 2007 regulations,” Witcher noted. “Unless we have more responsive regulations for 2018 we will go through the same cycle as the last time.”

That at least would be a positive development on at least one front in the continuing battle to deal with trucking-themed regulations.

Turning back to the freight picture for a moment, though, finds or economic sectors – particularly industrial manufacturers – are expressing more confidence in the U.S. economic outlook. And if that “confidence” translates into more production and by extension more profitable freight, more truckers might finally be able to afford to replace their older equipment and thus solve that “30%” dilemma.

One measure of that growing “confidence” comes from the quarterly Manufacturing Barometer compiled by global consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC).

The firm found that optimism regarding the prospects of the U.S. economy during the next 12 months rose among U.S. industrial manufacturers to 68% in the fourth quarter last year from 60% in the third quarter. PwC added that, compared to the fourth quarter of 2012, some 20% more of the industrial executives surveyed are now optimistic about the domestic economy, with respondents planning for hiring to remain steady, for international sales regain momentum, and for economic “headwinds” to begin leveling off.

“Optimism regarding the U.S. economy continued to increase in the fourth quarter, while views of the worldwide economy, although improving, remain divided given continuing levels of uncertainty,” stressed Bobby Bono, U.S. industrial manufacturing leader for PwC.

“Our outlook indices tell us that executives are generally more positive in regard to the economic environments in which they operate, but aren’t seeing significant improvement in financial results to make large investments in their businesses,” he added. “As we continue to see the global macroeconomic environment improve, we expect U.S. industrial manufacturing executives, bolstered by strong balance sheets, to more aggressively compete for businesses in international markets and increase capital expenditures.”

Still, Bono noted that 85% of those executives polled by PwC expect positive revenue growth for their own companies in 2014, with 13% forecasting double-digit gains and only 3% expecting negative growth. The projected average revenue growth rate for own-company revenue over the next 12 months increased to 5.4% in the fourth quarter of 2013 from 4.2% percent in the third quarter.

Interestingly, PwC’s survey found that legislation/regulatory pressures and concern about lack of demand were the most cited potential barriers to growth over the next 12 months by industrial executives, totaling 47% and 42% respectively.

Yet while lack of demand remains a concern among U.S. industrial manufacturers, it is down 10% from a year ago, when it was considered the primary barrier to growth, said Bono. In addition, several other barriers are lower than a year ago, according to PwC’s poll results, including oil/energy prices (25%), taxation policies (22%) and decreasing profitability (20%), while concern over capital constraints and competition from foreign markets increased from the same period last year.

Truckers themselves are witnessing more profitable times now as well, it seems, with J.B. Hunt Transport Services noting that its net earnings in the fourth quarter last year totaled $92 million on $1.47 billion in operating revenue, compared to earnings of $84 million on operating revenues of $1.34 billion in the same quarter back in 2012.

The carrier that load growth of 13% within its intermodal operation helped drive an 11% increase in segment revenue, with its Dedicated Contract Services (DCS) division witnessing a revenue increase of 17%, primarily from the addition of new customer accounts. Meanwhile, the carrier’s Integrated Capacity Solutions (ICS) division achieved a 13% increase in revenue mostly from a higher load count and an increase in revenue per load.

Only J.B. Hunt’s truckload division posted declining figures – a decrease in segment revenue of 19% –but one primarily due to an 11% reduction in fleet size down to 1,857 units compared to its fourth quarter 2012 size of 2,093 units, along with lower utilization per truck and lower rates per mile.

The interesting piece of this remains J.B. Hunt’s transition away from “traditional” irregular route long-haul truckload segment. The carrier said its TL rates per mile, excluding fuel surcharges, decreased 2.7% on a 4.6% shorter average length of haul, with rates from consistent shippers decreasing 1% from 2012.

To me that all of that means trucking still seems poised to do well in the coming year but not in the “traditional” sense of the business. Shorter hauls, more dedicated contract carriage and especially intermodal business seems to dominate the future – trends that will only accelerate when the aforementioned expansion of the Panama Canal is finally completed.

Today’s Trucking: Strength of Tonnage Good Sign For Economy

Truckers, do you feel the weight of the load you’re hauling? It’s getting heavier, the American Trucking Associations’ (ATA) reports, and that’s a sign that the U.S. economy is doing better than some might believe.

The ATA has been calculating tonnage index based on surveys from its membership since the 1970s.

“The final quarter [of 2013] was the strongest we’ve seen in a couple of years, rising 2.2 percent from the third quarter and 9.1 percent from a year earlier,” said ATA Chief Economist Bob Costello. “Tonnage ended 2013 on a high note, which fits with many economic indicators as trucking is an excellent reflection of the tangible goods economy.”

December tonnage was up 0.6 percent and that’s after November’s tonnage surged by 4.7 percent, growth that pushed the index 6.2 percent higher for the full year, making it the best year since 1998.

Costello said that the growth in tonnage in the second half of 2013 points to an economy that’s likely stronger than some believe.

“I’m seeing more broad-based gains now. The improvement is not limited to the tank truck and flatbed sectors like earlier in the year,” he said. “With manufacturing and consumer spending picking up, coupled with solid volumes from hydraulic fracturing, I look for tonnage to be good in 2014 as well.”

The Clarion-Ledger: It’s my job: Trucking

I didn’t start driving trucks until I was about 47. I was a salesperson stuck in an office. I had gone through a divorce and decided I wanted to see more than the three states I had been in in my life.

I had to pay $3,500 for a commercial driving license, and I only had about $4,000 at the time, but I did it. And CDLs are tough to get — real tough. I think I was one of only two out of a class of 20 that got one. I went to work in Chattanooga, Tenn., and I drove all 48 states. I did that for two years. It’s tough work. You’re often gone for three or four weeks at a time and then you get two days at home before you’re on the road again. It’s better if you’re an owner-operator; then you have more freedom to set your own schedule.

Seeing Mount Rushmore and buffaloes in the Dakotas was a highlight. That, and just being in the fresh air and seeing the natural rivers and stuff. Seeing the coast of California was an eye-opening experience, too. What most people don’t understand is that we can’t really stop and get out though because of regulations. Our sight-seeing is done from the road. Still, in the warm months it’s gorgeous. The winter can be treacherous though.

I remember driving in West Virginia when I had first started out. They were closing the roads because of the snow and I had planned to stop at the top of this mountain. The veteran drivers kept on going and one of them told me I didn’t want to get stuck there, so I followed him down the mountain. I tell you this — driving on black ice makes you take your time and it makes you thank the Lord when you make it through.

But then I got to where I had seen all I wanted to see and wanted to find something more local. I met my current wife, Joan, online, and she’s the reason I came to Jackson. I got a job hauling scrap iron before I met the man I work for today, Mr. Leon Getty. He’s a great boss, and I get a lot of leeway with my schedule and have quality family time.

Now I don’t travel more than a 100-mile radius of Jackson. Where I used to have to sleep in the cab, now I get to come home every night and sleep in my own bed. You don’t make the money you do when you’re driving the country. I make about $20,000 less than I did then, but that’s the sacrifice you have to make to get the family time. I don’t have to work weekends anymore, either.

I do wish other people better understood how difficult it is to stop an 18-wheeler. People make it dangerous on the roads; we just don’t have the capability to stop like they do. The other difficult part of the job is trying to eat right. That’s why you see so many obese truck drivers. You can’t just drive an 18-wheeler into Subway, ya know? The places you can drive a rig into and park isn’t really conducive to a healthy diet.

I love my job though. My boss is very generous. And driving gives me time to listen to music and talk radio, or just to think. I’m very happy doing what I’m doing, and I’ve found what I want to do with my life.

— As told to The Clarion-Ledger

Washington Post: Do ‘traffic angels’ drive semi-trucks?

By Lori Aratani

Ever wish that divine intervention might help you cut through traffic congestion? Well, this wasn’t exactly divine intervention, but someone we’ll call a “traffic angel” helped steer a Leesburg family through some pretty nasty holiday traffic.

In a letter to The Washington Post’s Editorial Page published Monday, Christine Hart described a holiday driving experience that proves you can find humanity and kindness even when you see nothing by tail lights in front of you. Hart wrote:

“On Dec. 27, my family and I were returning to our Virginia home after spending a wonderful Christmas with my daughter, son-in-law and granddaughters on Nantucket Island. The journey, albeit long, was going well until traffic came to a dead stop east of Harrisburg on Interstate 81. There were brake lights glowing as far as we could see.” 

She continued:

“After about 20 minutes of stop, drive five feet, stop, repeat, we were resigned to many more hours in the car. Suddenly in the adjacent lane a trucker lowered his window and motioned for me to do the same. When I did, he asked us where we were headed and we told him Northern Virginia. He smiled and said, “I’m on my way home to Emmitsburg. The traffic is backed up for 15 miles on this highway. Follow me.”

 With a little trepidation (perhaps we’ve watched too many episodes of “Criminal Minds”) we did just that, following him through Harrisburg on highways and byways that we had no idea existed. About 30 minutes later we found ourselves heading south on Route 15 — just where we wanted to be.

I am writing in the hope that this man will read my letter and know how much we appreciated his random act of kindness.”