New national trucking industry lobbyist familiar with Arkansas

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 208 views 

Chris Spear, the new chief of legislative affairs for the active American Trucking Associations’, has Arkansas connections and his former Arkansas boss says Spear “has the experience and the skills” to handle the “bigger-than-life personalities” in the trucking industry and in Washington, D.C.

He’ll need all the experience and skills he can muster. Ongoing work to draft a new federal highway bill, a push to adjust driver hours-of-service regulations and lobbying over other key issues for the trucking industry pushed Spear straight into the Capitol Hill legislative battles.

However, he’s not unfamiliar with the industry. Part of his trucking industry knowledge comes from his years lobbying for Arkansas issues, which included being aware of the governmental affairs positions of companies like Lowell-based J.B. Hunt Transport Services, Fort Smith-based ArcBest Corp. (formerly known as Arkansas Best Corp.), and Little Rock-based Maverick Transportation.

Spear, who has been with ATA for several weeks, served in 2000-2001 as legislative director for Arkansas issues with U.S. Sen. Tim Hutchinson, R-Ark.

Prior to joining the largest lobbying group that represents the U.S. trucking industry, Spear was VP of emerging markets and government relations for Honeywell. He also has worked as assistant Labor Secretary during the George W. Bush administration, and as a staffer for the U.S. Senate labor committee. He earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree from the University of Wyoming.

“Chris has a long career on Capitol Hill and in the federal government and we’re thrilled to have him as part of our advocacy team,” ATA President and CEO Bill Graves said in a statement. “Chris also brings a wealth of experience from the private sector which benefits our vital industry as we pursue our legislative priorities on Capitol Hill.”

Hutchinson told The City Wire he was not surprised Spear was hired for the high-profile job. In fact, he recommended to the ATA that Spear be hired.

“I lost a lot of good staffers to the Bush administration and Chris was one of the best,” Hutchinson said. “He’s got all the tools that I think you need for that position. He’s got Hill experience, obviously. … He’s got relationships all over Congress. He’s well known and well respected.”

Hutchinson said he is confident Spear and “everyone at ATA certainly understands that Arkansas is pivotal” in the national trucking industry.

Although the lobbying laundry list is long for Spear, his immediate priority is to help the industry convince Congress to adjust hours-of-service regulations implemented in June 2013.

“The goal of this rulemaking is to reduce excessively long work hours that increase both the risk of fatigue-related crashes and long-term health problems for drivers,” noted a statement from the federal Department of Transportation.

The rule reduces a driver’s average maximum allowable hours of work per week from 82 hours to 70 hours, a 15% reduction. The 15% reduction in the average maximum allowable hours of work based on the new rule results from the restrictions on the use of the restart period.” The DOT estimates that the new rule will boost annual trucking industry expenses by about $470 million, but said benefits from safety, driver health and other factors will produce an overall net economic gain of up to $280 million a year.

Officials in the trucking industry have said the rules do nothing to promote safety and instead merely drive up costs for the industry which are then passed on to consumers.

“The agency used logic that forcing break, rest, or driving periods at a particular time was a one size fits all proposition. Cardian rhythms and all types of fuzzy math were introduced by people that have never experienced being in a truck,” Greg Carman, president of Fort Smith-based Carman Inc. and a board member of the Arkansas Trucking Association, said in a December 2013 story on the issue.

Spear said the hours-of-service rules also are exacerbating a driver shortage in the industry.

“This is one our members want us to act on immediately,” Spear said of the rule, adding that “there are some unintended consequences with this rule. We’re not trying to roll back safety.”

One consequence is that the rules push drivers on the road at peak times instead of letting them drive at hours when the general public is not on the road, Spear said. He argues that is counter to the claim of federal regulators that safety is the focus. Spear said there is a “really receptive audience on the Hill” to modifying the rules, but he’s also realistic about Congressional action during a political season.

“This is a very dysfunctional environment in Washington and this is a mid-term election cycle, so there is not a lot that will get done,” Spear said.

He also said the dysfunction is likely to stall approval of a new long-term federal highway bill. Approval of a new bill is critical for many reasons. The Department of Transportation estimates the highway account of the Highway Trust Fund will run out of money by the end of fiscal year 2014. Also, state governments may have to delay projects if they aren’t certain that federal highway dollars will be available to support project completion.

Also, proposed highway bill language includes changes in how the trucking industry may be taxed to support funding of national infrastructure improvements. Spear said the industry is open to user fee increases and other revenue possibilities, but would like to know specifics in order for the industry to have a better understanding of future expenses.

MAP-21, the highway legislation now used, was approved in June 2012 after almost three years of Congress approving short-term extensions of the previous law before enacting new authorization.

Spear said he is eager to return to Arkansas for a visit.

“I hope so,” Spear said when asked if he would soon have time to visit trucking industry officials in Arkansas. “I traveled all four corners and just really enjoyed the state. It’s very diverse and I really enjoyed the people. … I want to talk directly (to industry leaders in Arkansas). That is the best way those of us in Washington can help the industry is to go to where they are.”