Impending retirement can have an interesting effect on a person. Take Jack Holmes, a UPS Inc. lifer who retires June 30 as head of its less-than-truckload (LTL) division. At this year's NASSTRAC shipper conference in Orlando, Fla., Holmes took the stage for the first keynote in a smart blazer, sharp slacks, spit-shined black shoes, and no socks. Was it just the Florida look, or was Holmes symbolically breaking free from the binds of a traditionally buttoned-down corporation?
Then there was Holmes' candor, which in years past might have been kept under wraps. Congress's failure to pass legislation adding 10 feet to the allowable length of twin 28-foot trailers was caused by Swift Transportation Co. and Knight Transportation Inc., two big truckload carriers that went around the industry's major trade group, which supported the measure, to persuade lawmakers to reject it, Holmes said. The railroads, the trucking industry's long-time lobbying nemesis, did not oppose the language, Holmes said. Neither, he added, did two truckload biggies, Werner Enterprises Inc. and U.S. Xpress Enterprises, even though the measure would have hurt their business by enabling LTL carriers (whom the language was designed to benefit) to handle more of their own freight, thereby reducing their need to send their overflow to the truckload guys.
All surprising stuff. Though they may be large and politically connected, it's hard to conceive of Swift and Knight literally, in Holmes' words, following right behind the American Trucking Associations' (ATA) lobbyists to undermine a proposal their own trade association had just endorsed.
During the milling-around break at the conference, some said they thought Holmes' points were a bit exaggerated. In their memory, rail interests cared less for the longer-truck measure than Holmes seemed to convey. Yet the railroads decided not to burn political capital on a battle whose outcome will have only a marginal effect on their business. They are storing up their volleys in case the truckers make another run at raising the federal gross vehicle—tractor, trailer, and cargo—weight limit from 80,000 pounds, where it has remained for 34 years.
Clarence Gooden, the president of CSX Transportation who joined Holmes on stage for the initial conference session, sat agreeably as his counterpart described his industry's decision not to fight the truck-length measure. But when asked if the railroads would give way on raising the truck-weight threshold, Gooden stated that they would not.
One couldn't help thinking that Gooden was speaking for his industry. And he may very well have been. The railroads tend to lobby with one voice, and this time it was Gooden's. The trucking industry, by contrast, has a cacophony going on, and it is proving problematic.
For truckers, part of the issue is the nature of the two beasts. ATA is an amalgamation of 50 state trucking associations, a structure that by definition makes it tough to build a unified national coalition around policy issues. The Association of American Railroads (AAR) is not beholden to state railroad groups, and its small fraternity makes it easier to achieve consensus. The railroads may scrap and claw for market share in the real world, but they seem able to subordinate their differences when they head to the Hill.
Yet it's hard to understate the significance of Holmes' comments about Knight and Swift killing the truck-length measure, especially since he was so blunt about their roles. Ironically, the provision looked like a slam-dunk to pass. LTL carriers and shipper groups lent their usual support. And this time around, the measure was backed by a former chair of the National Transportation Safety Board and a former head of the Sierra Club, both powerful endorsements of the proposal's potential environmental and safety impact.
Yet the measure died. And if Holmes is to be believed, it died at the hands of two carriers who took a different path than the association they pay to represent them. Stuff like this does not a harmonious legislative voice make.