It's time to put trucking on the candidates' radar screens

Whether you like hearing about presidential politics or not, I only get the opportunity to wax philosophical about it once every four years. So please indulge me while I mull over some of the issues clouding the future for fleets, especially where light- and medium-duty operators are concerned.

Crumbling infrastructure. According to the Dept. of Transportation, 59% of our major roads are in fair to poor condition and 31% of our bridges are "structurally deficient" or obsolete. DOT estimates that the U.S. will have to spend $52.75 billion annually just to maintain current conditions. If we want to actually make the roads better, that's an extra $18.75 billion a year. Bridges will need $80 billion for repairs.

Traffic congestion. Even if we start building loads of roads and bridges, it will be years before drivers will feel any benefits. Right now, Americans are wasting 4.6-billion hours and burning 6.7-billion gallons of gasoline and diesel a year sitting in traffic jams, according to the American Highway Users Alliance.

Energy security. According to the Dept. of Energy (DOE), the U.S. currently imports 52% of the 10-million barrels of oil it consumes every day. DOE predicts that by 2010 those numbers will rise to 60% and 15 million.

No alternatives. We've got no serious alternatives to gasoline or diesel in this country. Congress passed the Energy Policy Act of 1992 to cut petroleum use by 10% this year and 30% by 2010. What have we got to show for it? Not much. Only about 3.6% of all highway gasoline use has been replaced by alternative fuels - not even close to the 10% goal, and well out of range of the 30% targeted by the end of the next decade.

Driver shortage. We're short about 80,000 drivers right now, and that's just for Class 8 highway operations. With historically low unemployment levels, there just aren't enough workers to go around. Couple that with low pay, long hours and poor image, and it's easy to see why trucking gets passed over. And with each day, we lose more and more experienced hands - guys who have toughed it out for millions of miles in the truck cab.

That's just the short list. It doesn't include things like the $1-billion write-off Martin Labbe Assoc. predicts truck manufacturers and dealers will have to incur through 2002 because of the huge oversupply of used equipment. Or the projected $19 billion in total costs the trucking industry claims it will have to absorb if hours-of-service reform prevails.

What do George W. Bush and Al Gore have to say about all this? Not much.

Bush is pushing 19 major issues. He would encourage the use of "market-based incentives" to develop new technologies and approaches to help alleviate our oil dependency and reduce emissions that dirty our air, but that's about it.

Gore buries transportation in his energy plank, one of 31 issues he's promoting. He says that by creating an "Energy Security and Environmental Trust Fund" we can bring "revolutionary change to our transportation and energy infrastructure." It boils down to tax credits for buying "more fuel-efficient cars, trucks and 18-wheelers," plus building more commuter railroads.

I'm sorry, gentlemen, but that won't do. Trucking accounts for $453 billion, or 82%, of what U.S. businesses spend on transportation each year. If we can put a robot on Mars, we can develop better solutions than the ones being offered now.