When Bill Graves talks trucking, he knows whereof he speaks. The former Kansas governor grew up in the business, as part of the family that owned and operated Graves Trucking Co.
Now that he's moved from the executive office in Topeka to the American Trucking Associations' headquarters inside the Washington Beltway, he's back in the business. And to his surprise, the problems that plagued the industry back when he worked in trucking are the very same problems that bedevil the motor freight industry today.
Take the driver shortage, for example. Graves notes that qualified drivers were in short supply when he left this business some 20-plus years ago, and the situation has only gotten worse in the interim. Right now, the truckload segment of the industry alone is short 20,000 drivers, he says. That doesn't bode well for the future, he says, when we'll require even more people to pilot all those big rigs.
Then there's the nation's infrastructure. Graves charges that over the past 50 years, we have fallen short of President Dwight D. Eisenhower's original vision of a nation seamlessly connected by miles of high-speed roadways. We may have built the roads, he says, but we've failed to follow through with the necessary maintenance and expansions. Graves notes that although a 1998 Federal Highway Administration study identified a number of roads and bridges as being in dire need of expansion or improvement, few, if any, of them have been upgraded or repaired.
"We have failed miserably," Graves states. "Ike wouldn't be happy with what we have ignored. We are going to do some serious damage to our economy if we don't take care of the [infrastructure] we need to keep ... this economy... in good shape."
Though some argue that the solution lies in shifting more long-haul freight onto the rails, Graves dismisses the idea as impractical. "Rail/intermodal is growing about 1.0 percent in freight this year. It will increase another whopping 1.5 percent between now and 2016," he says. "The notion that we are going to solve all our infrastructure, capacity, congestion and environmental issues by shifting more freight to rail just doesn't hold. It's simply not going to be the case."
Questions of rail capacity aside, he continues, the idea flies in the face of transportation trends. In the past few years, U.S. businesses have been shipping more small loads on a time-definite basis, freight that hardly lends itself to rail/intermodal transport. "Based on changes in freight shipping patterns," he says, "there will be more smaller [shipments] on the road in 2016, not on the rail system."
Is there any hope that these decades-old issues will ever be resolved? Yes, says Graves, but it won't be easy. Like John Ficker of the National Industrial Transportation League (NITL), Graves believes the answer lies in formulating a national freight transportation policy.
That's not something the ATA can push through on its own, he warns. This effort will require cooperation from organizations like NITL, NASSTRAC and even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "We need to fix the perception that ATA is just going to the Hill to talk about our interests. We need [to] make it clear this isn't just a trucking- centric issue. It is an overall business issue that affects our economy," he says. "Elected officials need to know that."
So far, those officials have been slow to get the picture, Graves says. "What troubled us most in the most recent federal highway reauthorization act is that we can't seem to find the will to commit any real money to fund [road and bridge construction and repairs]. [In lieu of federal funding,] we are instead going to give the states the option of establishing tolling opportunities." Toll money may keep the system running, he says, but it can't begin to cover construction costs. Without funds, the states will be forced to put off critical maintenance and repairs, which "will cost all of us more, much more, in the long run."
Time, it seems, does not change everything.