A five-year federal transportation funding law hit the books Dec. 4, and freight interests celebrated a fine pre-holiday gift. The $305 billion measure allocated to freight an unprecedented $10.8 billion in funding. It directed the establishment of a multimodal freight policy and required the Department of Transportation to establish a multimodal freight network that identifies the most critical parts of the national freight-moving system. Almost as important—though in a less-tangible way—the process raised freight's profile among lawmakers.
For big trucking, however, the outcome was more muddled. The industry didn't get the proverbial "lump of coal." It scored a big win when Congress ordered the administration to scrub its hated carrier-grading system of scores and analysis for more than two years, though the raw data used to compile the scores remains in public view. Lawmakers killed language that would have allowed tolls on existing interstate highways. Trucking will also benefit from the funding dedicated to freight transport and intermodal connectivity; a law that bestows goodies on freight would seem to positively impact the sector that moves two-thirds of it.
Yet the industry whiffed on some of the big stuff that would have directly affected its operations. Attempts to raise the maximum permitted weight of vehicles operating on the national highway system never made it. (To add insult to injury, a provision to lengthen twin trailers to 33 feet each from 28 feet was dropped from the $1.1 trillion omnibus appropriations budget for FY 2016.) A highly conditional plan to allow commercial drivers under the age of 21 to operate in interstate commerce fell by the wayside, a victim of mainstream media hysteria mostly fed by misinformation. Congress killed an amendment saying that states couldn't regulate truckers who fall under federal driver hours-of-service regulations, this in the wake of a 2014 federal appeals court ruling that a California law mandating meal and rest breaks for trucking workers superseded a 1995 federal law pre-empting intrastate transport regulations. And Congress again refused to raise federal motor fuels taxes, marking 22 (which will become 27) years with no increases, despite trucking's continued support of tax hikes on diesel fuel.
The irony is that the pro-trucking agenda seemed to be gathering legislative momentum over the summer. So much so, in fact, that it sent the typically volatile highway safety crowd into apoplectic spasms, warning that Congress would have blood on its hands by passing legislation that would put American motoring families at risk. In the end, though, safety advocates, which teamed with U.S. railroads to present truckers with formidable opposition, carried much of the day. As the tide goes out, it seems clear the Association of American Railroads continues to outmaneuver big truck interests. It is well financed and well connected, and it speaks with a unified voice. It has the influential megabillionaire Warren E. Buffett, whose holding company Berkshire Hathaway Inc., owns BNSF Railway, as its ace in the hole.
By contrast, the American Trucking Associations (ATA), which represents large for-hire fleets, is a conglomeration of 50 state trucking groups that find themselves at odds with each other and with the mother ship. During the process, ATA couldn't get on the same page with its key members. For example, the organization supported the provision calling for longer twin-trailers. Yet a large number of big truckload carriers, the core of its constituency, opposed it.
One D.C. insider criticized ATA for failing to build bridges with other transport trade associations. Even finding common ground with the railroads would be helpful—as difficult as that may be, the insider said.
In a city where, like it or not, the phrase "go along to get along" still resonates, the group may need to rethink how it tackles legislative issues, especially when it comes to the 800-pound gorilla known as the "Highway Bill." It has five years to work on it.