Friday, August 17, 2007

Do as I say …

A lot of my writing for Land Line and other trucking industry publications has dealt one way or the other with safety. Like many of the folks who fill the pages here, I’m not a truck driver, just a good listener who has paid close attention to drivers’ stories and their recommendations for safer roads.

The very first time I had a trucking professional speak to me about safer driving was in 1977 near Boulder, CO, when I whipped around in front of a big rig and had to abruptly slow down. The driver noted the tall CB antenna on my little VW Rabbit and, without uttering one swear word, took me down further than the tread on a bald drive tire.

Since then, most of the time, I follow my own advice. Recently, I learned that the Good Lord doesn’t tell you when He’s going to give you a bye and when you have to play for keeps.

I was coming home fairly late one night. My route includes an interstate, a four-lane rural bypass and a five-lane state road. The bypass dumps onto the road out in the country enough that there is very little traffic at night. A couple hundred yards after the exit, there’s a stop light at a T where a two-lane side road winds off to a distant subdivision.

I was pretty close to the light when it turned yellow, and I had the speed needed to clear the empty intersection just before the light went red. Keep going, I decided.

Suddenly from the side road to my right, a pickup zipped into view. He apparently was anticipating the light change and wasn’t going to stop. He saw me, stood on the brakes but, I could see it was likely I was going to T-bone him.

I hit my brakes and, with the antilock thrumming, turned the wheels hard to the right to whip into the road he had come down. I had been doing the legal limit of 50 and my car dug in as it tried to negotiate the turn. Amazingly, she held, although fishtailing, and I rolled to a stop. Another car was coming up the road and that driver must have gulped to see my antics.

Stupid, stupid, stupid, I thought, to have taken the risk. Still, there was a bit of satisfaction in the car’s performance and in having pulled my sorry tailfins out of a jam. At least I was paying enough attention to react fast.

Needless to say, no more yellow light blitzing for me.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

‘Whopping’ shouldn’t describe 31 mpg

Big business is big for a reason, because the companies have the money and resources to grab market share for many of the products we use. They can also put a spin on anything.

Have you noticed lately how many advertisements there are for big businesses claiming to be going green with environmentally friendly products? It must be the in thing to do, or at least another way to spin the markets their way.

Several oil companies – we won’t name any here – have produced expensive TV commercials to tell us their products burn cleaner than they did before.

To me, that’s sugar-coating it because fossil fuels put harmful gases into the atmosphere no matter what the companies define as “green.”

Here’s another scenario. A number of automakers buy commercials to tell us their cars get a “whopping” 31 miles to the gallon. Are you kidding me? Thirty-one mpg for a four-cylinder automobile made of plastic, light steel and aluminum is hardly whopping. Those contraptions should get a heck of a lot better mileage than that.

But big businesses won’t push ahead until the laws change, and even then, it’s usually only an inch from where they started.

With the power the oil and auto industries have on Capitol Hill, the powers that be aren’t exactly hurrying to budge those laws. Not until their friends and lobbyists are ready. Not until the changes meet their approval or terms. Not until the fall-back is designed, marketed and in place for big business.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The power of numbers

We had a pretty big milestone this week on the Land Line Web site that I wanted to share.

In July, for the first time ever, reached more than 10,000 visitors a day. Actually, it was 10,929, to be more specific. That’s a total of 338,810 visitors over the course of the entire month.

Not that we’re keeping track or anything.

Needless to say, this is big news for Land Line and OOIDA. But what it really got me thinking about is how much power there is in numbers.

It’s so easy to get insulated from the “real world” when you spend the entire day behind the steel and glass walls of OOIDA headquarters. In here, a stable of reporters, editors, ad execs, researchers, sound engineers, and print and Web designers work hard to bring you Web news and a radio show every day, and a magazine nine times a year.

We know we’re creating something that will benefit the industry. But if the industry isn’t reading, listening or logging on, it doesn’t really matter what we do.

The same holds true for OOIDA and its recent achievement of 150,000 members. Now, that doesn’t mean the Association was limping along by any means prior to that, but it does offer a benchmark that gives us more clout in the industry, in Washington and on the legal front.

That kind of clout is only going to grow as more and more truckers come aboard.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

House of Reps was right to put brakes on Mexican trucks entering the U.S.

During the past year in Congress a battle has been raging, and its outcome could have far-reaching implications for our economy, our security and the safety of our nation’s highways and roadways.

This battle, over whether Congress will allow a controversial and dangerous plan to allow Mexico-domiciled trucking companies and truck drivers full access to our nation’s highways, has reached a critical point.

In February of this year, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced a program that would allow Mexico-based motor carriers to drive unfettered on our nation’s highways as part of the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA.

Currently these trucks are only allowed within a restricted commercial zone, generally about 20 miles wide. The proposed pilot program, which will be overseen by the DOT, would allow fleets from 100 Mexican trucking companies unrestricted access throughout the United States.

Numerous advocacy groups have called upon DOT to take steps to ensure safety and security before allowing this program to go forward. The DOT has largely ignored these pleas and is moving full-speed ahead without adequately addressing the litany of well-founded concerns raised.

Fortunately, the U.S. House of Representatives recently took a major step to protect our economy and the security of our nation’s highways. The House passed HR3074, the Transportation-HUD appropriations bill for fiscal year 2008, with an amendment that will cut off funding for the Mexican truck program in the coming fiscal year.

But, the battle is far from over. The House and Senate must reconcile the two versions of the spending bill in Conference Committee, and the Senate version does not contain the provision cutting funding that was approved by the House.

The Conference Committee, which is usually comprised of senior members of the House and Senate committees with jurisdiction over the bill, is a Byzantine, behind-closed- doors process where, if history is any judge, anything is possible.

As the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee who has responsibility for highway funding, Missouri’s senior senator, Kit Bond, will most certainly be in the driver’s seat as a member of the Conference Committee on HR3047. In the coming weeks, citizens and groups from across Missouri will be calling upon Sen. Bond as well as Sen. Claire McCaskill to support the House amendment.

If approved by the Conference Committee and signed by President Bush, this bill could put the brakes on allowing unsafe, unverified trucks and drivers the authority to operate throughout our country, at least temporarily. This would be a positive development for several reasons.

First, this program is bad for our small businesses as it will allow large corporate trucking companies to secure cheaper, less trained Mexican workers, displacing American drivers. Trucking represents a vital lifeline for our nation’s economy and is an important part of the small business sector that provides a tremendous number of jobs to our national economy. America has a vested interest in keeping highly trained, experienced, professional truckers on the road.

And, while the U.S. government continues to ratchet up safety and security regulations on companies and drivers, similar regulatory regimes are not enforced or simply do not exist in Mexico. This cross-border trucking program would make the lowest common denominator the norm in our industry and would essentially “insource” labor from Mexico to replace quality, hardworking American drivers.

If the pilot program moves forward, Mexican trucks would be able to drive a host of sealed containers up the fast lanes of the NAFTA corridor and make their first customs stop in the Kansas City metropolitan area. Once a Mexican truck has crossed the border, there will be little that can be done to keep track of that driver or determine what he is hauling.

Port and container security in Mexico is notoriously lax. By allowing these trucks into our stream of commerce we are essentially entrusting poorly trained, underpaid and often corrupt Mexican officials with the lives of our families and our children.

This reality should be deeply troubling to every family in America. U.S. borders should not be fully open to trucks from Mexico until our two safety and security regulatory systems are comparable and we have the ability to fully enforce U.S. laws.

In addition to serious security concerns, the Mexican truck program brings with it significant motorist safety concerns. Compared to the stringent rules we follow here, the enforcement of regulations concerning training and maintenance is virtually non-existent in Mexico. Allowing these trucks, which are too often poorly maintained and driven by untrained drivers, on our roadways would present a danger to all U.S. motorists.

It should be the duty of every lawmaker to keep good paying jobs in the United States, strengthen our borders, and protect our families from unnecessary risks on our highways. When Congress returns to work in September, we are putting our faith in Missouri’s senators to support the common-sense approach taken by the House and do all three.

Troll to get new digs in less than a day

Here’s something that made us say “wow” at a recent staff meeting. It’s called “rapid replacement technology” and its being used in Canada to replace a 500 metric-ton bridge in less than one day.

Ontario Transportation Minister Donna Cansfield stated that a bridge crew will use the technology to replace the Island Park Bridge on Highway 417 – and the highway will only be closed for a total of 15 hours. That’s right. Fifteen hours.

That’s a good thing for the 7,500 trucks and 150,000 commuters and travelers that use the bridge each day.

Obviously, the new bridge has already been constructed somewhere else and will be brought in by truck and crane. The old bridge will be removed in a similar fashion without a messy demolition.

And that means the resident bridge troll won’t even have time for a suntan before he gets his new digs.

Monday, August 13, 2007

I’ve got the gold, man, if you’ve got the sacks

Goldman Sachs is a name that is making it into a lot of transportation news headlines, coupled with words such as “privatization,” “toll roads” and “foreign investors.” Goldman Sachs, of course, is one of the largest investment firms on the planet and numero uno in annual net income compared to investment sector peers.

The firm is playing a big new role in mentoring states on how to wade into the privatization world and snag big money for toll roads.

Land Line Staff Writer Dave Tanner has been reporting on the activities of Goldman Sachs relative to the selling of highways for more than a year. We were discussing the other day how Goldman Sachs has not only established an infrastructure investment arm for clients like Macquarie of Australia and Cintra of Spain, it’s got its own big fund earmarked for investing in highway infrastructure. That fund is growing daily. The Trentonian newspaper reported recently it was up to $3 billion.

Goldman Sachs is masterful at finding a cash-poor state with old bridges and aging roads and hooking it up with foreign buyers with plenty of moolah. The Indiana Toll Road and the Chicago Skyway are both examples of its work.

No doubt, the company is downright nimble when it comes to convincing state and federal government decision-makers that privatizing is the right thing to do.

Of course, in many cases they are preaching to the choir. More Goldman Sachs grads are being shuffled into big government policymaking positions than most big law schools can boast.

Look at New Jersey, for example. Their governor is Jon Corzine, former head of Goldman Sachs. Another Goldman Sachs veteran, Gary Rose, is the governor’s economic growth expert. Last week, news outlets reported that Corzine named former Goldman Sachs colleague Bradley Abelow as his new chief of staff. That’s three in New Jersey’s upper deck of power.

It’s not just New Jersey; honor students from Goldman Sachs School of Finance and Power are everywhere. Other notables who have called Goldman Sachs their employer include Robert Zoellick, who also used to be a U.S. Trade Representative, and was formerly President Bush’s Deputy Secretary of State (2005-2006). Now Zoellick is president of the World Bank.

And then there is Robert Rubin. He was a bigwig at Goldman Sachs until 1992, when he became Secretary of the Treasury for the Clinton administration.

Josh Bolten, current White House chief of staff, was a Goldman Sachs guy, too. He was executive director for legal and government affairs at Goldman Sachs International in London before he got involved in the Bush-Cheney campaign of 2000. Bolten is credited with having helping Dubya in recruiting Henry “Hank” Paulson, former Goldman Sachs, to serve as U.S. Secretary of the Treasury. This was no small catch. Paulson was a powerful CEO of Goldman Sachs.

So if you’re thinking to yourself, “where did this sell-the-infrastructure idea come from, why are the ‘powers that be’ so sold on this, and why aren’t we hearing about other options?” – push this thought a bit further and ask yourself, just who “be” those powers?

Speed limiters not just a Canadian issue

I went online this week to check on the progress of a petition started by a hard-working owner-operator named Jean Catudal of Quebec who wanted to speak out against government proposals calling for mandatory speed limiters.

I was disappointed to see that only 314 people had signed it since July 8, including only 43 from the U.S.

Let me remind anyone interested in this issue, including U.S. truckers. These proposals for speed limiters in Ontario and Quebec may seem like Canadian issues, but they have widespread implications.

The proposals, if they become law when lawmakers return to office in October, will affect every trucker who travels into or out of those provinces. That would put a lot of limited trucks on the road that weren’t limited before.

And watch out, because Canada has been the guinea pig for a number of things that eventually get attempted in the U.S. – such as annoying dollar coins the size of quarters.

If the government is concerned about speed, officials need to enforce what is already there in the form of a speed limit.

Speed limiters on trucks should be a business decision by companies and individuals who want to self-regulate.

Anyone from anywhere can sign the petition. Click here to read the petition and to take a moment to add your name and a comment.