Annoyed by the traction that the railroad industry has gotten with its ubiquitous "Freight Rail Works" advertising campaign, motor carriers have decided to use the media too to put their best face forward to the public and politicians.
Last month, the American Trucking Associations, Owner-Operators Independent Trucking Association, National Tank Truck Carriers, Truckload Carriers Association, truck stop operators and other factions that often don't see eye to eye on issues agreed to collaborate on a publicity effort to promote the trucking industry's importance to the nation's economy. The Allied Committee for the Trucking Industry is initially focused on fundraising and creating messages that tout new technologies that have contributed to the safety, sustainability, reliability and efficiency of the trucking industry. A new website, TruckingMovesAmerica.com
, has already been created as a platform to begin the education process.
The ATA has for many years promoted the slogan, "Good stuff: Trucks bring it," but the new outreach is being joined by all sectors of the industry.
The effort is simply designed to make people aware of the role trucks have in daily life, not counter the railroads' claims, ATA President Bill Graves said in an interview last week following a conference in Washington on transportation infrastructure.
"I don't want anyone, though, to believe that there is somehow a solution to the nation's freight issues that can be solved with one or two areas of emphasis. The nation has to stay focused raising all modes, and in my case, the one that moves 70 percent of the tonnage [the actual number is 68.5 percent]
, needs to have perhaps a higher level of appreciation in the halls of Congress," Graves told American Shipper
Graves' disclaimer notwithstanding, the "Freight Rail Works" television ads have raised the profile of freight railroads, casting them as good corporate citizens who are doing their part to relieve highway congestion and improve environmental sustainability by taking up to 280 trucks off the road per train. The ads focus on intermodal freight shipments, the fastest growing and most profitable part of the rail business, which involve consumer goods that relate to people's everyday lives. Railroads have made enormous investments in recent years to upgrade their intermodal capabilities and make service as truck-like as possible. They are adding more dedicated facilities to attract cargo on shorter lengths of haul, which until recently was not considered possible because the break-even point was not reached until almost a thousand miles.
Although railroads are responsible for investing in their own infrastructure, creating a positive image of railroads among politicians and regulators has helped railroads score several Department of Transportation grants for multimodal, regional projects to make double-stack intermodal service more available on the East Coast; it has also helped the American Association of Railroads fight attempts by the trucking industry to increase the legal size and weight of tractor trailers, which would make trucks more economical and reduce the incentive to switch to rail.
Current federal regulations restrict trailers to 53 feet and to a gross weight of 80,000 pounds.
Motor carriers increasingly have ceded the long-haul routes to railroads to the point of booking loads with the railroads themselves. Instead, they are focusing more on intermediate lengths of haul and the shuttle runs between rail heads and customer docks.
At the ATA's recent annual convention in Orlando, Graves took a dig at the AAR, rhetorically asking, if freight rail "works so well why does it require a $100 million ad campaign to tell everyone that it works?" He also noted that rail carload tonnage is now less than 14 percent of total tonnage and is heading to 12.5 percent, according to ATA Chief Economist Bob Costello's recent 10-year freight forecast.
"How well will it work when the required average length of freight movement drops significantly from where it is today, as the population grows and consumer demand and supply chain expectations change — and insist on quicker delivery times," Graves said, according to a copy of his prepared remarks on ATA's website.
[Graves actually conflates some of Costello's conclusions, making the tonnage decline seem more precipitous than projected. Rail tonnage constituted 14.8 percent of total domestic tons moved last year and will decrease to 14.2 percent of the total by 2024. Rail carload tonnage, a subset of the total rail volume, is estimated to drop to 12.5 percent of total primary freight tonnage by then from 13.5 percent in 2012.]
The money spent on the "Freight Rail Works" campaign is far less than the ATA claims, AAR spokeswoman Holly Arthur said, but she declined to give the specific dollar amount citing competitive reasons.
In the interview, Graves said he was trying to address in a lighthearted way his members' frustration with the attention railroads are getting on the policy front as railroads work "to fill a tonnage void" created by the decline of coal business as power plants shift to cheaper natural gas and are subject to stricter emissions requirements by the Environmental Protection Agency.
The image makeover was first broached by truck equipment manufacturers and suppliers, ATA spokesman Sean McNally said.
The trucking industry plans to launch its full initiative at the Mid-America Truck Show in Louisville, Ky., in March. The timing is likely to coincide with the debate in Congress about renewing surface transportation legislation set to expire at the end of September. Congressional leaders and transportation advocates are hoping to stitch together a five- or six-year spending plan that will include new revenue streams to help fund highway maintenance and upgrades, as well as a new program for freight projects, at a time when fuel tax receipts into the Highway Trust Fund have not kept pace with obligations to states for completed projects.
Rehabilitating the trucking industry's image is important because "a bad perception is a costly reality" that leads to unfair verdicts in accident cases and ill-informed legislative and regulatory mandates, Truckload Carriers Association Chairman Tom Kretsinger Jr., wrote in a blog post on the new website.
"What are people's personal experiences around big trucks? The wind and shake when passed by a big rig? The blinding splash of water when passing or following an 18-wheeler in the rain? Or the large grill with teeth on it tailgating them down the road when they have kids strapped in the back of the car? It takes so much to improve our image and so little to tear it down," he said.
"Plaintiffs' lawyers know that they can grab the brass ring if they can get a jury to personalize a case and feel a need to 'send a message' to the industry" through judgments worth tens of millions of dollars or more, the president of American Central Transport, said.
"Perception shapes public policy," he continued. "Have you noticed the increasing tendency of state, local and federal legislators and regulators to micromanage without any reasonable cost/benefit analysis the smallest details of our work? Though they know little of the industry, they feel a need to do something. Why? Because they perceive that we are unsafe, despite strong evidence to the contrary.
"Perception is trumping reality. Automobiles are far less safe, but do we see the same efforts to regulate and legislate cars? No. Do we see the same verdicts on car crashes? No. Do we see as many attorney advertisements for car wrecks as truck wrecks? No. Image matters — it matters greatly," he said.
Founding members of the Allied Committee for the Trucking Industry said the image movement is geared to become a permanent part of the industry, not a temporary program.
The ATA is also strengthening its advocacy efforts in Washington, and its political action committee has raised more money than ever before, Graves said. The ATA plans on being much more strategic about which candidates to support in upcoming elections, he said in the interview. At the ATA convention, Graves suggested that the trucking association cannot automatically support Republican candidates anymore on the assumption that they are all pro-business because Tea Party representatives are doing a lot to hurt the economy.