by Niv Sultan
Uber service for pallets of lumber, crates of fruit and boxes of bolts? Last week, the company’s embattled CEO Travis Kalanick tweeted an image of an “Uber Freight” truck, a product of the company’s still-gestating foray into the trucking industry. Amazon, reportedly, is also working on an app that will connect truckers and shippers — and other companies are in the on-demand freight fray, too, all wanting a piece of the trucking pie. No wonder: In 2015, the industry amassed a record $726 billion in gross revenues, moving 10.5 billion tons of freight.
Disruptors are everywhere in the current economy, but the trucking industry also continues to contend with one of its timeless enemies: Railroads. The two have long vied for shares of the freight economy and fought pitched policy battles in Washington to create favorable conditions for their interests.
Railroads, too, are staring down the barrel of changing technology. With automated railway systems proliferating around the world, the future increasingly seems to be one without drivers and conductors.
Some on Capitol Hill are eager to prevent, or at least stall, that possibility. In January, Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) introduced the Safe Freight Act, a bill intended to mandate that a crew of at least two people — one locomotive engineer and one conductor — operates trains at all times. The bill has received the support of unions like the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers; transportation unions have given Young nearly $860,000 in contributions over the course of his career, his third-greatest source of donations. The Federal Railroad Administration has also recommended two-person crew requirements, but various railroad operators, including Union Pacific, and the industry’s main trade group, the Association of American Railroads (AAR), have opposed such a plan.
Proponents of two-person crew requirements claim the policy would enhance safety; detractors counter that there is no proof of that (though nobody has much experience running freight trains without engineers and conductors). And in September 2016, AAR pointed out what the rail group views as an inconsistency between government policies, saying that “While the [US] Department of Transportation is throwing its full support behind development of autonomous vehicles as a way to improve safety on our roadways, it is backing a rule-making for the rail industry that goes in the opposite direction and would freeze rail productivity.”
Meanwhile, other issues that run through the nation’s capital preoccupy the industries: For instance, consolidation in the trucking market brought Knight Transportation and Swift Transportation together in April in a merger valued at $6 billion, but the deal must be approved by federal antitrust regulators.
Then there’s President Donald Trump‘s possible openness to raising the gas tax, which he voiced earlier this month in an interview with Bloomberg. Since then, he’s been radio silent on the topic (and hasn’t delivered a promised plan for overhauling the nation’s infrastructure) — although plenty of others have weighed in on whether the levy on each gallon of gas should be hiked.
The tax functions as the main source of revenue for the Highway Trust Fund, which pays for transportation projects such as road development but hasn’t been raised since 1993. As a result, domestic infrastructure continues to degrade and the trust fund continually flirts with insolvency — not ideal for an industry reliant on good roads.
The American Trucking Associations, the industry’s largest trade group, has lobbied on fuel taxes every year since 2008. But while the industry thoroughly tilts Republican (at least 60 percent of the contributions it has given to candidates and parties have gone to the GOP since the 1992 cycle), groups that are similarly conservative, like Club for Growth and Americans for Prosperity, are against it — a classic divide between ideology and concrete self interest.
Overall, trucking put more than $9.1 million into lobbying in 2016. Railroads, on the other hand, rang up a bill of more than $26 million, although that industry’s lobbying outlays have consistently decreased each year since 2012, when it spent over $46 million.
Among the trucking industry’s myriad lobbying concerns are fuel efficiency, homeland security, regulations on how long truckers can drive without a break and the transportation of hazardous materials. Railroads are invested in some of the same issues, as well as some more specific to their own industry, such as tamping down congressional concern over fiery accidents involving trains pulling tankers of crude.
Another perpetual issue: The drive (sorry) by the trucking industry to put longer freight trailers on the highway. Currently, the trailers on freight trucks can be as long as 53 feet, but the industry wants to switch over to twin 33-foot trailers, for a total of 66 feet of storage. The change, the industry claims, would boost both efficiency and safety, since fewer trucks would be on the road. Attempts to include language in the Transportation Department’s budget along those lines have come up short, but trucking interests keep trying.
The rail industry is, surely, all for safety, but it claims that twin 33-foot trailers would in fact be less safe. It also would prefer that trucking didn’t become too efficient. AAR has lobbied on truck size and/or weight issues every year since 2010, and both rail and trucking have paid to have law enforcement officers lobby Congress on the issue, sometimes leaving those officers in the dark about who’s covering the costs of their trips to D.C. And in one case, the vice chairman of the National Troopers Coalition spoke of the dangers of longer trucks — without disclosing that he was on the payroll of a railroad industry-funded group. In 2015, a trucking industry group cited a report confirming the increased safety of twin 33-foot trailers, but did not mention that members of the industry had funded said report.
Both industries supplement their lobbying with a well-oiled system of campaign contributions. Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) has made out especially well, having received a combined $837,000 from the trucking and railroad industries since 2007. He happens to be chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Top recipients of campaign contributions from trucking and railroad industries, 2007–2016
Only one Democrat cracked the top five recipients of railroad money; none made it into the ranks of trucking’s favorites.
If a lawmaker is especially lucky, more than just campaign contributions might come their way. Last Wednesday, as per Politico reporting, AAR and GoRail, a freight rail advocacy group, held their first Railroad Achievement Awards, during which they recognized Sens. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and John Thune (R-S.D.) for their friendship to the industry. But while awards and ceremonies are nice, cash can be nicer. Thune has received nearly $555,000 from the railroad industry over the course of his career, and Nelson almost $344,000.
Researcher Doug Weber contributed to this post.