Wednesday, April 30, 2008

A matter of clarification …

We don’t often run calls about what’s said on other shows. We figure if folks have a question, or comment or complaint with those shows, they should contact them.

However, recently, OOIDA headquarters has been flooded with calls about radio host Kevin Rutherford, particularly about some of the comments he’s made about OOIDA, and about the fuel surcharge legislation the association is supporting.

As I said, we normally wouldn’t run calls about another show, but as our own Reed Black once said, if you get this many calls about any topic, you ignore it at your own risk.

So I hope you’ll indulge me if I take this opportunity to clarify some things.

First, some of the callers – and folks writing on our forum and others – claim that OOIDA has asked XM Satellite Radio to take Mr. Rutherford’s show off the air.

The association has not asked for that to happen, and would not ask for that. XM controls their own programming.

We disagree with Mr. Rutherford on the fuel surcharge issue. And he has a right to his opinion.

What we encourage all truckers to do is listen to all sides of the debate, do your own research as well, and come to your own conclusion regarding any issue.

As far as the fuel surcharge bill, The TRUCC Act, I can’t understand who would oppose it – outside of the brokers and carriers who stand to profit even more if it doesn’t pass.

The only thing this legislation requires is transparency, so everyone involved knows what is being paid; and it requires it to be passed through – that money collected for increased cost of fuel to the person who pays for that increased cost. What could be simpler?

If I understand Mr. Rutherford’s argument correctly, it’s that he doesn’t want the government involved in the fuel surcharge – or any other part of the business of trucking. I believe his contention would be that it distorts the free market.

However, I would say this: The debate over OOIDA’s fuel surcharge bill is not a debate about the free market.

It is not a distortion of the free market to allow everyone involved in a contract to actually see the contract.

It is not a distortion of the free market to ensure that consumers and shippers actually get what they pay for.

It is a distortion of the free market to fraudulently collect money for fuel when that money’s not being used to pay for fuel.

And that’s what collecting a fuel surcharge and giving it to the middleman is … It’s fraud. Government has a legitimate role in preventing fraud.

We used to call that kind of activity law enforcement. Now, Mr. Rutherford calls it stifling the free market.

Another point of contention are comments Mr. Rutherford made regarding OOIDA. I wanted to hear those comments myself, and I have listened to that conversation, which took place on his show.

Mr. Rutherford said he thinks OOIDA has harmed the trucking industry. He says he doesn’t want to belong to a group representing owner-operators or other truckers because a group like that would distort free market forces.

That’s a very fine ideological stand. However, that type of ideology doesn’t work in the real world, and the real world is where truckers live.

The thing Mr. Rutherford misses is that everyone else, including the big carriers, will and do have representatives in Washington.

He misses the fact that there will be regulation of this industry by our government. It doesn’t matter whether we like it or not. That’s reality.

So do you want owner-operators to be the only people without representation when those regulations are written? Do you want other truckers like company drivers to have no representation as well? Isn’t that a little like unilateral disarmament?

Do you want regulation that screws you and rewards your competition? Or do you want regulation that provides an equal environment for all?

I guarantee you, the other folks who take an opposite side will be there, will have representatives, will ask for a regulatory environment that favors their members, will ask for new regulations that restrict truckers in their daily activities.

And if no one else is there, if there is no voice, a voice like OOIDA, those people and their representatives will get what they want.

Mr. Rutherford seems to live in an ideal world where we live in a truly free market and the government stands to one side, hands off, to allow all businesses to compete in a perfect environment.

I’m sorry, Mr. Rutherford. That world doesn’t exist. Not anywhere on Earth.

Here in the real world, OOIDA exists so that truckers have a voice.

That does not mean we expect the government to do everything for us. It does not mean we oppose anything free market.

And likewise, supporting bills like The TRUCC Act does not mean that we’re socialists. Trust me when I say, nothing could be further from the truth.

But like it or not, the government is already involved in this business, up to their ears.

The only thing we’re trying to do is to ensure that the government’s involvement doesn’t destroy otherwise viable businesses.

Mr. Rutherford often says that when someone has a grievance with him, they should call his show and talk it out.

It’s clear Mr. Rutherford has a grievance with OOIDA. So we’d like to do the same – We’d like to invite him to be a guest on our program and to discuss the issues with someone here from OOIDA.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Green with envy over this fuel …

Here at the show, we’ve been dealing with the high cost of fuel by talking about what truckers themselves can do to survive the current fuel price crisis.

But we all know about the bigger issues involved. The price of oil and fuel is higher than it’s ever been. And while many think speculation is primarily to blame, others have pointed to different reasons.

The lack of refinery capacity in this country is one. Over the years, because of strict environmental laws here in the United States, more and more have closed, and few if any have opened.

That led one of our callers to ask: Why not locate those refineries just over the border in Mexico?

That would create plenty of jobs for people there, which hopefully would mean fewer entering our nation illegally. It would provide us with plenty of refinery capacity and yet keep those facilities where the EPA frankly doesn’t care about them.

It seems like a win-win. If our environmental laws are holding back construction of new refineries, why not put them there?

I hesitate, however, to suggest moving any business out of this country right now. We really need the jobs here.

The better solution is for them to work out the environmental concerns and build them here. But as everyone knows, we have little control over that.

That same caller asked about the latest trend in supposedly environmentally friendly fuels – using algae to produce biofuels.

Unlike other biofuels that are falling out of favor, that’s pretty interesting stuff – and for a number of reasons.

First, the stuff thrives on carbon dioxide, so the output of power plants could be funneled into it. It would make the stuff grow like mad, and prevent that CO2 from getting into the atmosphere.

Second, growing that algae doesn’t take a fraction of the land required for other biofuels. Farmland could be dedicated to food crops. Land that has little use for crops could be used for algae.

There are still concerns about even this idea – and it’s important to note that it has to stand alone in the long run. Government subsidies may be an option to get something off the ground, but in the long run, no fuel can make it if it continues to require those subsidies past the research stage.

Even if everything goes well, algae-based fuel is still quite a ways off. But it does have some promise.

If you want to read more, click here.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Let people have their grief in peace

Sometimes, the bills that come out of states irritate us. Sometimes, they anger us. And sometimes, they just seem silly or frivolous.

A recent bill in Missouri struck one of our listeners as belonging in the last category.

The measure aims to replace the makeshift roadside memorials families place along highways with official state ones. However, only memorials to victims of drunken driving would be created by the bill.

Frankly, I thought this was much ado about nothing myself. But I think we have a duty as a news outlet to let people know when lawmakers spend time – and therefore taxpayers’ money – on things like this.

The lawmaker involved thinks these little crosses are a safety hazard. Does he think encouraging people to read the little blue sign instead of paying attention to other traffic is any more safe?

And on top of that, what’s with making a grieving family pay – much less pay up to $1,000? Funeral expenses are bad enough these days. Why are we adding more expense to folks already under incredible personal stress?

We have serious problems in this country. Fuel prices are bankrupting people. The economy is in shambles. Our roads are deteriorating.

Let people who are in grief put up their little crosses and flowers, especially if it helps them get through it. Let’s get out of the business of putting up memorials for them.

Truckers and millionaires do have something in common

We try to keep you up to date on everything that can affect your life as a trucker – on all the issues linked to transportation.

However, as you can imagine, things happen all the time that you would never think of as transportation issues, but which are very definitely linked to this industry and its interests.

One of those is the so-called tech tax in Maryland.

The concept was simple – the state extended its sales tax to computer services, which previously weren’t covered.

The tech industry had a cow. After a major lobbying effort, they had it repealed. But it’s how they paid to make up the income lost that interests us.

The state diverted 100 million dollars out of transportation and other programs to pay for half of that tax cut on computer repair and other tech services.

The other half was paid for by what the state calls a “millionaire’s tax” – literally, a tax on incomes of 1 million dollars a year or more. I supposed I’m OK with that one, if we have to have a tax. But I think it’s silly to link highway users together with millionaires. I don’t ever recall seeing a trucker light an expensive cigar using a hundred dollar bill.

In reading about this, I saw something interesting. The tech community in Maryland, the businesses small and large in that industry, all worked together to get the tax repealed.

John Eckenrode is the president of Catonsville, MD, computer services company CPSI and a leader in the movement to get the tax repealed. He told a local newspaper that the tax would have a disastrous effect – his words – on his business and others like it.

He added, talking here about the repeal effort’s success, ‘‘If there is any … lesson, it is to get yourself a good publicity team, a good grass-roots team, a good lobbying team and get your fundraising lined up.”

Another leader in the repeal movement, Thomas Loveland, told that same local newspaper that lawmakers in the state didn’t understand the economic impact of taxing computer services. He added this: ‘‘It became all about educating them that this is a huge component for success in the economy.”

Folks, that is what OOIDA is doing every day. Our folks in Washington, DC, are making the case for truckers, and we are always trying to encourage a grassroots effort to back it up. In this case, grass roots means phone calls by truckers like you to Congress.

Those computer folks in Maryland blasted the state capital with phone calls, all talking about how that tech tax would affect them, how it would hurt their business, how it would cut their profitability – and therefore, cut their ability to pay taxes to the state.

Truckers need to learn from that example.

When OOIDA’s DC staffers speak with a congressional office and say truckers aren’t receiving the fuel surcharge paid by shippers, those folks are far more willing to believe that if they hear the same thing from truckers who live in their own districts.

We’ve shown that this works. We’ve done it before, with great success. If we can keep doing it again and again, we will make incredible, positive changes in this industry.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Would they put up with this crap?

Idling regulations and restrictions continue to proliferate across the country.

Lacking any central decision by the federal government, states, counties and cities have taken the lead on the issue, creating a patchwork of often conflicting regulations that truckers have to navigate in order to avoid frequently prohibitive fines.

It’s an issue that matters to anyone who’s spent a night in a sleeper berth. And it caused one trucker to say this:

Maybe they should try it.

The example he gave was a good one: a proposal in Pennsylvania that would restrict diesel-powered commercial vehicles to no more than five minutes idling per hour. The only exceptions – if the temperature is lower than 40 degrees or higher than 75 degrees.

Why don’t the folks writing the law try living that way, the trucker asked. Would they tolerate living in a house that was 40 degrees inside?

I’ve heard truckers make this case before, and I think lawmakers write it off. They justify blowing off this argument by saying it’s not the same.

Well, it is, plain and simple. You, as a U.S. citizen, are entitled under the 14th Amendment to our Constitution to equal protection under the law.

What other American worker would accept these conditions in their workplace? If there were a business like that, we’d call it a sweatshop.

What other American citizen would accept these conditions in their home? To many truckers, that cab is home. Most over-the-road truckers spend more time in the truck than their own bed, and some live in the cab full time. And if we required people in an apartment complex to live in those conditions, we’d call it a slum.

Electrical generation to warm or cool homes creates far more in the way of greenhouse gas than trucks.

Call your lawmakers, and remind them of that. Remind them that in our nation, those who run things are supposed to follow the same rules as those they govern.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Idle money released into thin air …

We reported earlier this week about troubles at IdleAire.

The company says it is in financial trouble—and the company says it has “substantial doubt” about its ability to keep operating.

A lot of folks had questions from the beginning about how this thing would survive once the federal money dried up.

A caller to our program asked how they arrived at this point with $55 million in federal money. Let’s show the full picture – they got $55 million, and then they ended up $93 million in the hole this year alone.

Even if you don’t count the losses for previous years – and apparently, they were all losses – that’s $148 million they burned through. The final tally of losses may go much higher.

We not only need an investigation of where the money went – we need to learn some lessons to use the next time someone comes along with a scheme like this asking for our federal taxpayer money.

Every single one of us has faced a scam or two in life. We learn from it, and then we avoid the problem the next time it crops up.

The federal government should be expected to do no less.

It’s a simple matter of survival

Trucking is a business. No one out there needs us to tell them that.

And everyone knows about the strain that fuel prices are putting on every business in trucking. Again, everyone reading this knows.

Ultimately, though, the solution to the cost of fuel is business practices.

We can’t control the price we pay at the pump. The government could, but it’s so unlikely they will that it’s not smart to put your business on hold waiting for them.

What we can control is how we do business – what loads you will accept, which ones you won’t … you can know what your cost of operations is and you can know what price you need to make a living.

We’ve heard a lot from truckers about how this is playing out on the open road. A recent call to the show’s Listener Comment Line put a familiar spin on it.

Steve, a regular caller based in Massachusetts, said he was offered a load for $1,100. He told the broker he would not move it for a penny under $2,400.

Well, guess what? The broker piped up and said he already had someone to haul it for $2,000. Steve’s refusal stopped that broker from pocketing $900 more of the shipper’s money – cash that legitimately should go to the trucker.

Steve’s story points to exactly what we’ve been talking about, both on the program and elsewhere here at OOIDA headquarters.

Not only did the load pay far more than the broker let on – I’m willing to bet it even paid enough to cover Steve’s $2,400 and give that broker a more than decent fee.

Let’s face it – when the broker couldn’t find someone to take the load for $1,100, he had to pay more. And if that broker hadn’t found the $2,000 dollar trucker, he would have used Steve.

Here at OOIDA, we’ve heard from plenty of truckers who did exactly what Steve did, but they did get their price and they did get the load.

The fact is, truckers can’t make it in the long run without covering their costs and paying themselves a salary. If you want to be around in five years, this isn’t something you should do. It’s something you must do.

It’s better to sit out a few days waiting for the right load than running at a loss and putting yourself into bankruptcy … or an early grave from the stress.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The “city that works” … to take your money

Among the many ways governments try to get truckers and others to pay for roads is a new trick called “congestion pricing.”

Here’s the basic idea: Tolls go up during rush hour, so people will spread the traffic out over time, traveling before or after the traditional rush hour, so they can avoid the higher tolls.

On the surface, sounds great. Except when you realize that without a true split sleeper provision – one that lets truckers rest a couple of hours to wait out the heavy traffic –there’s no way for them to take advantage of the lower rates.

The feds have been heavily pushing this idea. And now, it turns out someone’s actually put it into practice.

In fact, the Illinois Tollway has had this system in place for some time. And the whole scheme assumes that truckers have far more control over their schedules than most drivers really do.

Chicago also led the way on privatization. They had one of the first highway sales in the Chicago Skyway. It seems as if they’re intent on leading the way into as many bad ideas as possible.

Many years ago, when the first Richard Daily was mayor of that town, it was known by a nickname – “the city that works.”

So how’s it working now? You be the judge – but it doesn’t sound too good to me.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

When trucking gets a cold, America sneezes

Every single person in America is dealing with the high cost of fuel. But truckers face a particular burden. Unlike most Americans, they have to deal with that cost as a fundamental part of making a living.

They track that fuel cost and how it affects their operation. And they’re very aware of how that fuel cost affects everyone they do business with – which means, in essence, everyone else in the economy.

That gives truckers a particular kind of insight. And it’s where most of the public falls short in their understanding of how fuel prices affect our economy.

The folks in government never seem to understand the basic concept here – that when costs go up for truckers, everyone else will eventually pay as well. They still look at trucks as if they’re giant rolling piggy banks full of free cash.

Part of the problem is their basic misunderstanding of the nature of the trucking industry. They think of it as giant fortune 500 companies, whereas the business is – in reality – mostly made up of some of the smallest operations in the American business world.

You see that misconception playing out elsewhere as well. A good example is the Indiana Toll Road. Part of the reason you haven’t seen them learn the lessons of that debacle is that – in part – the ultimate consequences are still developing, with some still years away.

Remember, regular toll increases were built into that lease. But they were designed to happen over time.

By the time the toll rates have gone up over and over and finally reached an unpayable, unaffordable figure, many of the folks who caused the mess will be long retired.

It’s all of us, along with our children and grandchildren, who’ll be stuck with an unaffordable road, few alternatives and a messed up highway system in that state.

The best recourse we have to correct problems like this is public pressure. Make sure you register to vote, and make sure you vote in every election at every level of government. Find out where candidates stand on these issues, and vote accordingly.

And keep those calls coming to your members of Congress – both House and Senate – and to your state lawmakers. Keep telling them how this affects you, how you oppose it.

We’ve proven time and again how a wave of phone calls from truckers can affect how our elected officials vote.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Not so far with the SPR …

A caller to our Listener Comment Line recently suggested something: Why not release 100 million barrels or so of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, flood the market, and crash prices?

It’s an interesting idea. It certainly sounds satisfying to anyone who’s suffered at the hands of current fuel prices.

But, realistically, that will never happen.

The current administration is not only intent on filling the current reserve – they want to expand the capacity of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve by 300 million barrels of oil.

Our first step has to be to stop adding oil to this reserve. It is very close to its planned capacity – which means that it can and will serve its intended function: to preserve our energy security.

What concerns me now are two things:

First, I worry about the message we are sending to the world markets. A number of oil industry experts have said that continuing to add to the reserve sends a signal that the U.S. government expects a major disruption in world supply in the near future.

Why else would we add oil at the highest price in history? Wouldn’t a careful, prudent planner buy low and sell high? Isn’t that what they taught us in grade school?

Second, I’m concerned about not only our physical security, but also our economic security.

War is a crisis. That’s plain. But the Depression was just as big a crisis to this nation as any war.

I’m not saying we’re headed into a period like that. But I think any clearheaded person knows we’re in a downturn. I simply don’t see any reason to take actions that can only make it worse.

And that, my friends, is the only possible outcome of continued contributions to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

BMI – it stands for “Bums Messing up the Industry”

Recently, I spoke with Melissa Theriault of OOIDA’s Washington, DC, office about the CDL Medical Review Board.

The board hatched a harebrained idea about using BMI, or body mass index – an inaccurate measure at best – to determine how likely truckers are to get sleep apnea.

Their plan was to decide whether to give truckers only provisional medical certification if they were above a certain body mass index figure. Under their proposal – now pretty much approved by that board – nearly half of truckers would face provisional certification.

The idea has a lot of truckers’ blood boiling.

Here are just a few of the long list of problems with this scheme:

First, what they call overweight is not what I call overweight. Under their standards, when Arnold Schwarzenegger was Mr. Universe, he was technically obese.

The way they figure body mass index is inaccurate. It should not be used, period.

Melissa told me at one point this was little more than an employment plan for doctors, since it will force truckers to undergo an unnecessary exam year after year. I thought at the time she was exaggerating, but now I’m not so sure she was wrong.

Trust me when I say, OOIDA will fight this wrongheaded idea.

Hey, buddy – toll this!

On a recent program, we talked about tolls on the George Washington Bridge in New York, and what they’re supposed to be used for.

One of the points I brought up was that a lot of the money collected on the bridge isn’t spent on maintenance; it’s diverted to other spending.

Turns out more of the money’s being taken out of maintenance than I thought. A trucker recently called in to point out that the bridge is poorly maintained at best – and clearly, the huge sums of tolls being collected are not being used as they should be.

And he’s not the only trucker who called in to say this.

What’s more, another trucker called me to say that the Indiana Toll Road – now a privately run enterprise – is being pretty shoddily maintained as well.

I think it’s a damn pity.

If truckers are going to pay a premium, a double tax – which, frankly, is what a toll amounts to – then they should get premium service, not substandard service.

How about this: truckers pay the regular price, and you give them the service they’re paying for. That’s a deal I think you’d find most truckers could live with.