Truckers are hoisting a new signal for the railroads: Caution — Truck Crossing Ahead.
American Trucking Assns. President Walter McCormick is suggesting that ATA members might want to assert their prerogative as rail customers — and as the dominant mode of freight transportation — and join the effort to increase competition among the railroads.
It's the latest development in the long struggle for competitive advantage between trucks and railroads.
McCormick notes that rail shippers are up in arms about service and rates. Their lobbyists are pushing for reforms that would lower barriers to competition and give shippers more say in ratemaking.
With the approval of the ATA Executive Committee, ATA staff is gathering information to help association members decide what position they want to take. McCormick's aim is "to protect trucking's interests" — particularly with respect to productivity, including truck sizes and weights.
He has indicated that one way ATA might assert itself is to support "competitive access" to rail lines by other railroads — a policy the railroads adamantly oppose. McCormick says he is not issuing a threat. Competitive access is before Congress, he notes: "We've got to take a look at that issue in the context of what makes the most sense for an efficient, economical, freight transportation system for the U.S."
But he also notes that the railroads oppose further productivity gains for trucking. So, he asks, how does the freight move? "If railroads do not want to see more freight moving more efficiently on the concrete highway, then we have to consider the issue of how do we move more freight more efficiently and more competitively on the iron highway."
However McCormick means it, the railroads see it as a threat. "Its purpose is to harass the railroads," said Paul Oakley, director of the legislative department at the Assn. of American Railroads.
Moreover, he said, it is irrelevant: "We will not change our position no matter what the truckers threaten."
McCormick said he has discussed the issue with AAR President Edward Hamberger and will follow up in additional meetings. He also has met with Ed Emmett, president of the National Industrial Transportation League, a strong advocate for increasing transportation productivity — including liberalized truck size and weight limits. And he said ATA has begun attending meetings of the Alliance for Rail Competition, an organization of shippers from all industries who are pressing for more rail competition.
ATA's policy deliberations will be affected by differing opinions among its members and other trucking organizations on aspects of this issue. Association members are not of a single mind on either truck sizes and weights or competitive access.
As ATA figures out what it's going to do, Congress is moving forward on key railroad legislation. The main vehicle for action is a "clean" bill by Sen. John McCain, R-AZ, that would reauthorize the Surface Transportation Board and nothing more. Also in play are two other bills that would open the rail industry to more competition.
Look for more from ATA in June, following its Executive Committee meeting.