Twenty years before the National Industrial Traffic League set up shop in Washington, D.C., Congress enacted the Interstate Commerce Act. The new law established the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) and gave it some authority over rail rates, thereby ushering in the long era of federal transportation regulation.
A number of other acts would follow, extending the government's regulatory reach over the nation's carriers: the Elkins Act in 1903, which banned rails from offering rebates to shippers; the Hepburn Act of 1906, which allowed the ICC to put caps on rail rates; the Transportation Act of 1920, which allowed it to set minimum rates (and limited the railroads' allowable rate of return to 6 percent); and the Motor Carrier Act of 1935, which extended the ICC's authority over the increasingly dominant trucking industry.
With all that activity, it made perfect sense for major shippers to form an organization to represent their interests on Capitol Hill and in the emerging regulatory agencies. And in 1907 they did just that. The league, for many years now called the National Industrial Transportation League, celebrated its centennial earlier this month with a gala dinner in Chicago, with more festivities likely to follow when it holds its annual meeting in November.
The transportation industry, the regulatory environment, and the league itself have changed enormously across that century. When the league first took root, the railroads dominated freight and passenger transportation— and what freight did not move by rail was carried by barge, boat, or ship, or in wagons drawn by teams of horses. Little did the railroads suspect that within a very few years, track mileage would peak, and truckers would begin to capture freight from the rails and shift it to the slowly emerging network of roads.
Since its inception, the league has been at or near the center of every battle over freight transportation regulation in Congress, in the agencies, and in the courts. The business environment shifted over time from one that was accepting of regulation—there was something to be said for stability— to one that increasingly favored deregulation. The league played significant roles in the passage of the Staggers Act and the Motor Carrier Act of 1980 and of subsequent deregulatory measures that unleashed market competition and permanently transformed the transportation industry in the United States.
The league itself underwent a major transformation just a few years ago. In 2002, the organization that had long billed itself as "the voice of the shipper" invited through its doors the carriers that it had once regarded as its adversaries. The league's mission has evolved as well. Members today are as likely to focus on ways carriers and shippers can collaborate as they are to debate or dispute specific policy questions. The league's leaders regularly engage with their counterparts in similar organizations in Europe and Asia. And security and productivity have replaced rates and tariffs as members' top concerns.
Oh, the league still pays close attention to goings-on in Congress and in the regulatory agencies. Some disputes would sound familiar to its early members—and may cause some internecine squabbling under its new structure, I suspect. One example: The league is battling truckers' efforts to preserve the National Classification Committee's antitrust immunity. (That exemption was tossed out in May by the Surface Transportation Board—the successor to the Interstate Commerce Commission, whose existence started it all.) But it has broadened the scope of its advocacy efforts to include promoting a national policy that would address some of the daunting challenges facing freight transportation in the United States. Its annual transportation forum in Washington has become one of the best sources of information on emerging policies available.
In the nearly two decades that I have followed the league, I've always been impressed by the professionalism and energy of its members and staff. As the league reaches 100, neither seems to have slackened. It seems a good time to say congratulations.