Lofty Goals, Little Action

In too many cases, we’ve seen government representatives state laudable goals in laws while doing little or, in some cases, working against those goals from being achieved. This unfortunately appears to be the case with the federal transportation reauthorization act, known as MAP-21, when it comes to freight policy.  

In the freight section of MAP-21, Congress incorporated language stating the bill “establishes a policy to improve the condition and performance of the national freight network to provide the foundation for the United States to compete in the global economy and achieve goals related to economic competitiveness and efficiency.” Grand words and a worthy goal, yet in many ways, these words ring hollow when one looks at actual federal policy and laws regarding trucking, particularly in the area of productivity. 

One reason the U.S. has been so competitive over time is that it has one of the most efficient freight systems in the world. Realizing that more than two-thirds of freight tonnage in the country moves by truck, much of the credit for this record can be attributed to the motor carrier industry.

Unfortunately, other countries that compete with the U.S. are catching up. Countries such as Australia, Canada and most European nations already allow for significantly more productive trucks on their highways than the U.S. does. Those countries have recognized the value and benefits of these vehicles and aren’t held back by arcane, outdated laws relating to truck productivity that preclude the U.S. and its businesses from operating more efficiently. 

More productive vehicles are being operated in those countries without compromising safety or the country’s infrastructure. Business leaders in those countries continue to be amazed that a country such as the U.S., which has been a leader for change in many areas, appears to be the last one coming to the dance on truck productivity.

Congress froze truck size and weights on the interstate highway system in 1991. To put this in perspective, the Soviet Union was still intact (soon to fall), the Internet had just become publicly available, most computers had storage of 20 megabytes, and a limited number of people had a cell phone. Although there has been substantial and rapid change in the rest of society and the world, our nation’s laws on truck productivity are stuck in a time warp and assume nothing has changed in the area of trucking and that the same conditions exist as they did 22 years ago.

This is ludicrous. Truck equipment has improved dramatically with advanced safety systems, a slew of new regulations and laws have been enacted to ensure existing trucks are in good condition, and drivers and fleets are held to much higher safety standards and face serious penalties if they fail to do so. The result has been a drop in the fatal accident rate of more than 70 percent over that period. Despite these facts, there have been no real changes in this law. 

The continued freeze and lack of ability to acknowledge that any change is needed represents a failure of leadership on the part of the federal government. To a large extent, this brain freeze in policy and leadership is the result of an ongoing and determined effort by special interest groups, based on their own self-interests, rather than that of the nation.

Some believe motor carriers will be the losers if truck productivity doesn’t advance. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Motor carriers will somehow meet the increasing demand, but it will be at a higher price. With demand ramping up and supply limited, many carriers may do better under this scenario.

The real losers will be American manufacturers and businesses, which will be less competitive in the world because of higher freight costs; the nation’s consumers who will bear higher prices; motorists who will see more trucks on our already congested highways; and our environment as we add more trucks that will generate more emissions. 

If congressional lawmakers wish to continue down the same path in the next transportation reauthorization act, in the interests of transparency, they should include a line at the end of the freight policy statement noting, “and only if such freight efficiencies have been approved by other entrenched special interests.”

In the interim, let me suggest that the feds and Congress continue to listen to their cassette cartridges of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and watch reruns of the Cosby Show on their VCRs.   

Greg Fulton is president of the Colorado Motor Carriers Association, which includes more than 600 companies involved in the trucking industry in Colorado. Contact him at greg@cmca.com.

 

 

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