The Challenges Facing Trucking

People often ask me how it is that, as a farmer, I stumbled into trucking. I grew up involved in the day-to-day operations of my family’s Indiana farm, but in 1972, I decided to devote my energies to agribusiness. As a young farmer who knew only agriculture, I had a vision of an agricultural business that also could relate to many different industries.

By Charles L. “Shorty” Whittington
Chairman, ATA

When I returned home from Purdue University in 1968, we purchased a retail feed business and grain elevator, and along with that came the need for specialized trucking. With the purchase of a small trucking company, Grammer Industries was born in 1977.

In search of growing business opportunities, I connected with various trade and business associations, gaining valuable information. I joined American Trucking Associations’ Agriculture and Food Transporters Conference in 1995 as a charter member. And I quickly realized the value of association life. AFTC’s efforts to obtain an hours-of-service exemption for ag haulers taught me that a few people communicating and working in the right direction for a common goal can accomplish a lot. For six years, I proudly served as AFTC chairman in hopes of helping other members to solve their own problems and find opportunities the way I had. Now, I’m proud to accept the chairmanship of ATA.

In 1977, trucking’s biggest challenge was the looming prospect of deregulation. The door was just starting to open so that new motor carriers could enter the market. For small carriers like me, this opened up huge business opportunities. Some 30 years later, the face of trucking is vastly different.

I’m accepting ATA’s chairmanship at a time when trucking is up against economic doldrums, high fuel prices, lower freight volumes, a slumping housing market and even high food prices — all of which are putting daily pressures on our ability to thrive. Unquestionably, these are significant hurdles. But it’s the long-term challenges that have me most concerned.

It’s no secret that we need a focus on freight movement in this country. The industry needs more capacity to move product on a reliable network of roads. The nation’s infrastructure is our workplace, and we cannot allow it to continue to fall into disrepair. We need a lot of work done to maintain the roads we have. And we need additional funds to expand our capacity nationwide. But to do that, we need more resources.

There are some questions among lawmakers and regulators as to how to undertake such a significant financial undertaking. At ATA, we’re looking squarely at the upcoming reauthorization of the highway bill.

I’m encouraged that the government recognized the critical need to sustain the nation’s infrastructure, when it transferred $8 billion into the Highway Trust Fund to keep it from slipping into insolvency. But the truth of the matter is that this shift of funds is little more than a temporary Band-Aid on a looming budgetary catastrophe.  The fact is, when it comes to our aging infrastructure, we have to do something now. The longer it takes to fix our infrastructure problems, the more it will cost us later. And the cost of doing nothing is more than our industry can bear.

Many would argue that a complete restructuring of the highway funding system is in order. But I believe that if funds are properly allocated, the current system of collecting the fuel tax remains the best way to build the Highway Trust Fund.

For some, the question of increasing the gas tax is a bitter pill to swallow. We were one of the first industries to understand how important it is to be fuel-efficient, especially as diesel prices move toward $5 per gallon. The collection and distribution of the fuel tax have worked quite well and remain the most viable means for channeling funds to critical highway projects.

Our industry faces other vital issues as well. More than a year ago, we started talking about how to do a better job of conserving fuel and reducing greenhouse gases. Building on a quarter-century of technology improvements, we came out with a bold plan for reducing our carbon dioxide emissions. We’d like to reduce traffic speeds to conserve fuel. We’d like to see strategies to reduce idling and allow the use of more productive vehicles to maximize the efficiency of our trucks, drivers and fuel. And we endorse fuel taxes as a way to support infrastructure investment. All of these are a good start. We’ve been using clean diesel technology since the early 2000s. But our industry continues to run primarily on diesel fuel. We need clear alternatives to moving 80,000 pounds on a diesel-powered engine. We will need alternative fuels and alternative power if we are going to continue building upon the goals we set this year for cleaner, greener trucks.

I’m confident that renewable fuels ultimately will play an important role in the future of the transportation industry and in reducing Americans’ dependency on foreign oil. On each of these issues, we’ve come out aggressively to say that we are prepared to do our part. But we need help to make our industry more efficient. Trucking has a role to play, and the government does, too. We need the government to help accelerate our contributions to the quality of our environment. Each of the issues I’ve discussed here is important to the survival and growth of the trucking industry. What’s more, at the end of the day, we need trucking to work for our economy. The U.S. economy has been built up around trucking, and it will continue that way. If trucks stop, America stops.

For 75 years, ATA has committed itself to serving the trucking industry. Now, I’m committed to pushing that effort forward.

Charles L. “Shorty” Whittington is president of Grammer Industries Inc., Grammer, Ind., which provides transportation services for industrial, agricultural and retail suppliers.

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