A driving force for truckers

Greg Nash

American Trucking Association (ATA) President Bill Graves traded in the trappings of the Kansas governorship for gridlock in and around Washington, D.C.

“The most interesting transition was from having spent eight years not having to drive yourself anywhere to finding yourself in Beltway traffic,” quipped Graves, who has been leading the D.C. lobbying firm for trucking companies since leaving office in 2003.  

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The former Republican governor said it was natural for him to move from elective office to his current position because his family has been involved in the trucking industry for several generations.

“I suppose I have to thank my father for creating this opportunity for me,” Graves said, in a recent interview with The Hill. “My dad was actively involved in the industry. He chaired the state association, the Kansas Motor Carriers.” 

Now that he’s left behind the life of a politician, Graves said the traffic was far from the only adjustment in his move to Washington.

“When you’re a governor, you have a certain amount of command and control,” he said. “I’m not unlike probably every other trade association executive finding that there’s a great frustration that things … that seem obvious to us to get done over on Capitol Hill don’t get done or get done through a very long, painful process.”

Graves was succeeded in office by a now-controversial name in Washington, former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who has become synonymous with the bumpy rollout of President Obama’s signature healthcare law. 

“She took on a interesting challenge,” Graves said.

Graves has also been no stranger to controversy lately, finding himself embroiled in a fight in Congress that erupted last month over scheduling rules for truck drivers.

At issue was an attempt by lawmakers to roll back some federal requirements that drivers take time off on two consecutive nights between the hours of 1 and 5 a.m., as part of a rule that they wait at least 34 hours before starting a new shift.

The ATA and other trucking groups argued that the rules resulted in more trucks being on the highway during daylight hours, when traffic was heavier. They added that some truckers were forced to take two days off depending on when they started the 34-hour window.

Safety groups vocally opposed the change to the trucker scheduling rules, which Obama administration officials said were intended to reduce fatigued driving. The opposition to undo the regulation received a boost when comedian Tracy Morgan was involved in a high-profile accident involving a truck driver.

Graves said the impact of tweaking the trucker scheduling rules was being overblown by critics of the industry.

“We are aware that there is going to be some controversy to almost every regulatory policy issue that we confront,” he said. “There is a well-known, established group of organizations who get up every day being paid to figure out how to oppose most of anything our industry is interested in.”

Graves said the Department of Transportation admitted during a Senate committee hearing about the trucker scheduling rules “that they haven’t thought through or investigated … what the impact might be on safety with a lot of commercial traffic spilling back out onto the nation’s roads.

“I think we felt that is a significant enough question that even the groups that consider themselves pro-safety would’ve questioned the efficacy of the agency’s rule,” he said.

Graves said trucking companies were just as interested in safety as advocates of the late-night scheduling rules.

“There is no advantage to be gained in our industry by not … trying to be as safe as you can possibly be,” he said. “There’s no gain to be had from unsafe driving.”

Graves added that opponents of the trucking industry should reconsider its impact on the day-to-day lives of U.S. residents.

“Eighty percent of U.S. communities only have freight delivered by truck,” he said, adding that trucking benefits “anybody that enjoys eating, anybody who enjoys having clothes on their back, who appreciates that medicines are available when they walk into the pharmacy.” 

Graves and the ATA made waves in recent years by coming out in favor of an increase in the federal gas tax, which transportation advocates say could help close a $16 billion-per-year shortfall in federal infrastructure funding.

Graves said he implemented a 10-year, $13 billion transportation plan when he was governor of Kansas that included two increases in the state gas tax.

He said he hopes modern-day Republican leaders can learn from his example that it’s safe politically to increase transportation funding.

“I think the people out there still hold me in reasonable good stead because everybody appreciates mobility,” he said. 

Graves does not agree with conservative groups in Washington that have argued for eliminating the federal government’s role in transportation.

“Those individuals who actually have been suggesting devolution, I don’t think have fully thought through the impact on interstate commerce,” he said. “I think they should check with governors and state legislatures to affirm that they’re really desiring to cut the federal government out of transportation funding. Where I used to sit and where I now sit, I really don’t think that’s a good step forward for the country.”

Graves pointed out that previous Republican presidents have supported gas tax increases.

“If you’re a Republican, I always point to Ronald Reagan,” he said. “He’s always considered sort of the iconic conservative Republican. Ronald Reagan understood and proposed a gas tax increase because it’s the best way to fund this enormous network of roads and bridges.”

Still, he acknowledged that any tax increase is a tough sell in today’s bitterly divided Congress.

“I wish we had come up with a different name for what it is we’re doing as opposed to fuel tax because it really is a user fee and it has sustained the system so well for so long,” Graves said. 

He said he has seen a lot of changes in the way business is conducted in Washington during his time here.

“I was just ahead of the wave that’s overtaken Washington, D.C., and the country, where it seems like there’s a much greater emphasis on politics than there is on really getting public policy crafted and adopted and implemented,” he said.

 

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