ATA President and CEO Chris Spear went to Capitol Hill to deliver a blunt message to Congress about the dire condition of U.S. infrastructure.
After the recent blockage in the Suez Canal, the ongoing shortage of microchips, and now the shutdown of the Colonial Pipeline, supply chain issues continue to dominate headlines. With the pandemic serving as a backdrop, which exposed America’s offshore vulnerabilities, and the advent of rising prices as the economy tries to pick back up after a year of idling—the sum of these circumstances paints a worrisome picture that has rightly focused Congress’ attention on the strengths and weaknesses of our nation’s supply chain.
But as a hearing yesterday before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee explored, there are more worrisome, underlying challenges afflicting the U.S. supply chain that predate the pandemic and will worsen well after these most supply shocks are resolved. Decaying infrastructure is placing enormous and unsustainable strain on the supply chain, hindering the freight industry’s ability to move goods safely and on time, and creating unnecessary friction for an economy trying to recover from the COVID recession.
As the central and most critical link in our supply chain, the trucking industry has unique and valuable perspective into how failing infrastructure is hampering the movement of freight, holding back economic growth, squandering job opportunities, jeopardizing highway safety and harming the environment. American Trucking Associations President and CEO testified before the Senate committee to show lawmakers where federal infrastructure investments are most needed and detail actionable steps Congress can take to ensure our workforce has the resources it needs to keep America moving.
Here are a few highlights from his testimony:
A highway bill must target freight bottlenecks.
When weighing priorities, Congress should begin with the National Highway System, which accounts for only five percent of highway mileage yet carries 55% of all vehicle miles traveled. Thanks to real-time truck GPS data provided by our fleets, the American Transportation Research Institute can pinpoint where the most acute chokepoints persist.
These freight bottlenecks are clogging America’s economic arteries, with 87% of total truck congestion costs nationwide being caused by only 17% of National Highway System miles. And the costs are staggering: 1.2 billion hours of lost productivity for the trucking industry annually – the equivalent of 425,000 drivers sitting idle for an entire year—adding $75 billion to the country's freight bill. This congestion causes trucks to burn an excess 6.87 billion gallons fuel—nearly 13% of their total fuel consumption—resulting in 67.3 million metric tons of excess CO2 emissions being released into the atmosphere.
As both ends of Capitol Hill move to markup their respective surface transportation reauthorization bills this year, it's imperative that resources are allocated to alleviating these costly chokepoints.
Freight intermodal connectors are key.
The roads that connect ports, rail yards, airports and other intermodal facilities to the National Highway System are critical to trade and a seamless supply chain, but many are neglected. Just nine percent of connectors are in good or very good condition, 19% are in mediocre condition, and 37% are in poor condition. Congestion on freight intermodal connectors causes 1,059,238 hours of truck delay annually and 12,181,234 hours of automobile delay, adding nearly $71 million to freight transportation costs each year.
The problem? The majority of these roads—some 70%—fall under the jurisdiction of a local or county government. We can pour hundreds of billions of dollars into port improvements, but if containers can't leave the port in a timely manner, that investment is for naught. Congress must ensure federal dollars are directed to shoring up these crucial connecting roads, because they're the glue that holds our multimodal system together.
More drivers are needed.
The trucking industry faces a growing driver shortage. According to a recent estimate, it needs an additional 60,800 truck drivers immediately—a deficit that is expected to grow to more than 160,000 by 2028. In fact, when anticipated driver retirement numbers are combined with the expected growth in freight demand, the industry will need to hire roughly 1.1 million new drivers over the next decade, or an average of nearly 110,000 per year.
The COVID-19 pandemic further exacerbated the truck driver shortage, and the temporary closures of state DMV’s and truck driver training schools disrupted the already-fragile pipeline of new drivers entering the trucking industry. While portions of the trucking industry have somewhat weathered the pandemic’s economic storm, according to the BLS April 2021 Report, the trucking sub-sector had a net loss of 42,500 jobs in 2020.
Spear urged lawmakers to pass the DRIVE-Safe Act, bipartisan legislation that would remedy the nation’s growing shortage of truck drivers by promoting opportunity and enhancing safety training for emerging members of the trucking workforce.
Although 49 states and the District of Columbia currently allow individuals under the age of 21 to obtain a commercial driver’s license and operate commercial vehicles in intrastate commerce, these same individuals are prohibited by federal law from driving a truck across state lines until they turn 21. The ban on interstate commerce also precludes them from hauling any freight intrastate that originated from out-of-state, such as cargo shipped by air into their state of domicile.
The DRIVE-Safe Act would change this through a rigorous two-step apprenticeship program that creates a path for these drivers to participate in interstate commerce. As the name implies, however, the legislation’s first priority is safety. In order to qualify, candidates must complete at least 400 hours of additional training—far beyond what is required of any other CDL holder in the nation. All qualified drivers participating in the apprenticeship program would be accompanied by an experienced driver in the cab and would only be allowed to drive trucks outfitted with the latest safety technology, including active braking collision mitigation systems, forward-facing event recording cameras, speed limiters set at 65 miles per hour or less and automatic or automatic-manual transmissions.
Leaders from all levels of the supply chain, including agriculture, manufacturing, retail, foodservice and transportation, recently sent a letter to Congress urging passage of the DRIVE-Safe Act.