Trucking Industry Takes Aim at Simplistic Federal Transportation Policy Rhetoric

Truckers appreciate the multimodal nature of transportation investments more than almost anyone except the railroads. Without the ability to move freight by rail, water, or air, many trucking companies are simply out of business and their drivers out of work. So, when the trucking industry takes aim at the simplistic transportation policy rhetoric emerging out of the U.S. Department of Transportation, we should take notice.

In an article for, American Trucking Association president Bill Graves challenges U.S. DOT Secretary Ray LaHood on his claim that investment in rail will take “gas guzzling trucks off the road” and relieve congestion:

American Trucking Associations President Bill Graves took LaHood to task on DOT’s rhetoric, arguing that the department is promoting irresponsible policy.

It is simply wrong to argue that the country can significantly ease congestion by shifting freight from the roads to the rails, Graves wrote in a letter to LaHood in May. “Even if intermodal tonnage doubled by 2020, intermodal rail would account for just 1.8 percent of freight movement, compared with the 1.5 percent that is currently projected for 2020. By comparison, trucks will move 71 percent in the same time frame.

“Taking ‘trucks off the road,’ as you suggest, would bring our nation’s supply chain to a screeching halt,” Graves said.

But, LaHood wouldn’t listen, making the naive claim that the reason people use cars and trucks is because that’s where government has invested its dollars. Again, from the article:

But LaHood has indicated he believes that roads have historically gotten too much emphasis in transportation planning.

“We’ve put almost all of our resources into our roads, and the reason that 90 percent of the people drive to work or drive a car is because that’s where all of our resources are,” he said in a recent interview on National Public Radio. “Our commitment has been to roads, and part of our commitment now at DOT is to create opportunities for alternatives to congestion, to automobiles, knowing full well that it takes time to change habits.”

In the same interview, LaHood acknowledged trucking’s concern. “Well, lookit, the trucking companies pay a lot of taxes to use the roadways, but there’s plenty of room along the roadways for all forms of transportation, whether it’s cars or trucks or cyclists or walking, and using the bully pulpit that I have as the secretary of transportation to promote these has gotten a lot of attention.”

His remarks on giving bicycling and pedestrians a greater voice in transportation planning didn’t seem that controversial to him, he said in his blog. “After all, I didn’t say they should have the only voice. Just a voice.”

Secretary LaHood could use some lessons in transportation history (and I would start with transportatin historian David Jones’s excellent book Mass Motorization + Mass Transit: An American History and Policy Analysis). Mass transit use declined when those systems were mature transportation alternatives. Changing land-use patterns and rising incomes drove the shifts in modes, not government finance. If anything, investment has lagged travel demand on roads, not the other way around.

Meanwhile, U.S. DOT’s full-fledged retreat from making congestion a priority policy area means more and more trucks will get bogged down in gridlock, travel times will increase, productivity will fall, and our standard of living will be compromised.