2016 Election Leaves Key Trucking and Transportation Congressional Interests Intact

November 09, 2016 by Tiffany Hsu, @tiffkhsu

Donald Trump’s upset ascension to the presidency left many surprised Tuesday, but as far as the freight and trucking industries were concerned, the election at the congressional level was relatively sedate.

The incoming Congress, which will convene Jan. 3, will be addressing such issues as working conditions for truckers. A recently introduced aviation-related bill, for example, includes provisions to override intrastate laws regarding commercial drivers’ meal and rest breaks and hourly wage tracking.

Races for the 49 seats on the House Highways and Transit subcommittee and the 17 seats on the Senate Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Infrastructure, Safety and Security subcommittee largely ended with the status quo preserved.

In the House subcommittee, all but one of the 28 Republican and 21 Democratic slots were up for grabs (Illinois Democratic incumbent Daniel Lipinski ran unopposed). Roughly 84 percent of those incumbents are now coming back, with Florida incumbents Lois Frankel, a Democrat, and Daniel Webster, a Republican, representing new districts.

Pennsylvania Republican Bill Shuster, who currently heads up the umbrella Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and is an ex officio member of the subcommittee, swept to his ninth term with 63 percent of the vote after struggling earlier in the year during his party’s primary.

Shuster, whose father, Bud, chaired the same committee from 1995 until 2001, has pledged to shepherd through freight reforms and long-term highway funding initiatives. During his recent tenure, the committee helped craft the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation, or FAST, Act, a $305-billion funding allowance that President Obama signed into law late last year.

In 2014, Shuster was also responsible for a law that temporarily allowed truckers to drive long hours when delivering home heating fuels to areas with a shortage.

Eight House subcommittee members are departing in 2017. Their replacements may or may not participate in infrastructure and transportation discussions as fully.

Republican incumbent John L. Mica of Florida, in office since 1993 and chairman of the overarching House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee from 2011 to 2012, lost to Democrat Stephanie Murphy. Republican incumbent Cresent Hardy of Nevada lost to Democrat Ruben Kihuen.

There were six other change-ups in the House, but each of those seats was retained by its current party. Democrats Ann Kirkpatrick of Arizona and Donna F. Edwards of Maryland retired their seats for unsuccessful Senate runs. Democrat Corrine Brown of Florida failed to win the nomination to run for her seat.

Republicans Richard L. Hanna of New York and Reid. J. Ribble of Wisconsin retired. Ribble last year debuted the Safe, Flexible and Efficient Trucking Act, which would allow states to authorize vehicles exceeding federal weight limits to operate on interstate highways under special conditions.

California Democrat Janice Hahn left as well to return to Los Angeles politics. In 2015, she introduced the National Freight Network Trust Fund Act, which would support competitive grants to improve the national freight network.

Neither Ribble’s nor Hahn’s proposal has emerged from subcommittee consideration.

In the Senate subcommittee, which currently leans narrowly Republican, two-thirds of members were not up for re-election. Among the six that were, five definitely reclaimed their seats.

Through much of Wednesday, Republican Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire was neck-and-neck with Democrat Maggie Hassan. Later in the day, Ayotte conceded the race to Hassan.

Last year, Ayotte introduced the Strengthening America’s Bridges Act, which would help the Transportation Department offer grants to states hoping to repair or maintain deficient bridges. The legislation stalled in the Finance Committee.

The Senate and House subcommittees oversee many U.S. Department of Transportation agencies and programs, guiding policy on infrastructure development, commercial vehicle regulation, research initiatives and more.

But it’s the executive branch that could now represent the most substantial changes for the freight industry.

Chris Spear, chief executive of the American Trucking Associations, congratulated Trump in a statement Wednesday. Representatives from the trade group have already begun meeting with the president-elect’s transition team, he said.

“During the campaign, [Trump] highlighted the need to create jobs and recognized that improving our nation’s infrastructure is critical to strengthening the economy,” Spear said. “As the industry that moves nearly 70 percent of our nation’s freight and is a key economic driver, we look forward to working with President-elect Trump on a host of issues, including long-term, sustainable infrastructure funding, tax reform and fair and free trade.”

The new administration could give the trucking industry a reprieve from more stringent emissions regulations.

At one point in the campaign, Trump proposed eliminating the Environmental Protection Agency.

“Although Trump has shifted to a less contentious stance,” said Ann Duignan, an analyst at J.P. Morgan Research, “he has still spoken about loosening environmental policy.”

Less stringent greenhouse gas emissions standards for heavy-duty trucks would be a positive for truck manufacturers, Duignan said Wednesday in a report to investors.

If Trump holds to his campaign promise of heavy infrastructure spending over five years, road conditions could improve.

“The key question initially will likely center around how the US government pays for its share of the spending, for which Trump has proposed funding through taxing the repatriation of corporate cash held overseas,” Duignan said.

But any increase in infrastructure spending would likely benefit freight and trucking, Duignan said.

At the moment though, Trump’s infrastructure building plans are sparse on details.

In a Wednesday note, analysts at Stifel Financial Corp. also said that infrastructure spending would be positive for freight demand, but could potentially tighten the driver pool, leading to higher carrier rates.

The analysts also weighed in on concerns about “the threat of the rise in protectionism feared by a Trump presidency.” Trade tariffs or altered trade agreements could chill American imports and exports, slowing freight demand, especially for international forwarders such as Expeditors International, they said.

Parcel carriers such as FedEx and UPS could also suffer, Stifel found.

But the Stifel analysts said they “believe the global trade fears may be overblown.” Domestic less-than-truckload carriers and truck leasing companies might actually benefit from higher tariffs if more goods were sourced in the U.S. rather than abroad as a result.

The broader effect on the overall economy, however, “would be negative and could outweigh any benefits,” Stifel said. So for now, analysts are taking a wait-and-see approach, noting that “election platforms and rhetoric are often different from Oval Office reality.”

Related: Infrastructure Spending: A Rare Point of Agreement for Trump and Clinton

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