A few years back a newly appointed U.S. Secretary of Transportation was being briefed on the trucking industry by a department head. "Trucking," the department head said, "is a giant industry of midgets."

Trucking is a giant industry. Of the $270 billion spent on transportation in the United States in 1985, some $200 billion was spent on trucking. It's also a growing industry. Truck revenues increased 5.3 percent last year. The industry grows faster than the U.S. gross national product. Much of that growth came at the expense of the railroad industry. In 1980, trucking moved 73 percent by value of all the goods that were transported in the United States. In 1985, trucking moved 76 percent of the total value of goods moved in the country.Yet trucking still is, to a large degree, an industry of many small companies as well as a few large ones. And deregulation of trucking in 1980 has perpetuated if not accentuated that state. Today, anyone with a truck, gas and a heavy foot can start up a trucking company. And many are doing it. In fact, no one knows how many truck companies there are in the United States today. You hear figures like 20,000, 30,000 even 50,000.

Trucking is an amorphous, fragmented and diverse industry. But, if you were at the Washington Hilton last week attending the American Trucking Associations' Management Conference you, would not have gotten that impression. Truckers are usually considered the cowboys of the transportation industry. But you would have had to look long and hard to find many cowboys among the 4,000 trucking executives who attended the ATA meetings.

It was definitely a three-piece suit crowd. And they were in a serious, hardworking mood. Even the wives were business-like. ATA misread the wives. Serious meetings on taxes, safety and business outlooks were held concurrently with separate meetings for "spouses," i.e. wives. But it soon became apparent that the wives were sneaking into the serious meetings.

Tom Donohue, now into his third energetic year as president of the ATA, addressed the spouses for 10 minutes or so Monday morning. His strength is people. But the women I sat with were irritated with him. His remarks touched on how busy he had been prior to the conference because Congress overstayed their session. He also allowed that he hasn't seen his wife very much lately. Nothing serious. Definitely talking down to the women, from some of the women's point of view. "I know as much about the business as my husband," one lady grumbled. "It's my career, too," said another.

Trucking has changed in America, Robert Claytor, chairman of Norfolk Southern, acknowledged that at the ATA's general session meeting Tuesday. ''When I first started as a young lawyer in in the railroad industry, I never dreamed that I would one day come to an ATA convention," he said. But it was appropriate that he was there. Trucking's important to Norfolk Southern, especially since it purchased North American Van Lines in 1985. Mr. Claytor also acknowledged that railroad people, if they are to become more efficient, must be more "truck-like in how they operate their buisness.

Before he sat down, Mr. Claytor also acknowledged that trucking definitely had a place in rail transportation. Owning a major trucking company he said was a cost-effective way to initiate a new service. The trucking line was a cheap way to build up the service to the point where it then could be switched over to Norfolk Southern's rail network. Some grumbling followed that remark. He sounded a lot like Mr. Donohue talking down to the spouses.

I had some time with the new chairman of the ATA, Robert E. Lewis. Quiet and self-effacing, Mr. Lewis founded American Pacific Transport Co. 16 years ago in Honolulu. He started with 12 employees and has built his for-hire carrier company into a $2.5 million operation.

"How can someone from Hawaii be in a position to have the background to provide the leadership for a huge national association like the ATA?" I inquired in a friendly manner. Mr. Lewis took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes and then looked at me hard. "Sometimes it's good to be at some distance

from the problems," he said. "It's usually easier to see the difficulties when you are not part of them. They tend to stick up like a big thumb with a red rubber band around it."

Mr. Lewis cited many problems facing truckers in the 50 states, including safety, taxes and the need for highway funds to be spent on highways. But foremost among them, he said, is the need to establish a Motor Carrier Administration within the U.S. Department of Transportation. "We are the biggest transportation industry in this country, bigger than the rails, bigger than the airlines, bigger than the ship and barge industries. But we are the least represented at the DOT. We also represent more voters than all the other transportation industries combined. Given our importance to the economy, we intend to get a Motor Carrier Administration."

The tone was familiar. It sounded a lot like the truckers' wives who no longer wanted to be talked down to. If I were Mrs. Elizabeth Dole, the DOT secretary, I would listen to this man.

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