Homer Alaska - Business

Story last updated at 10:28 PM on Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Trucking regs could raise prices in Alaska



By Sean Manget
Alaska Journal of Commerce

New federal regulations to reign in the number of hours truckers can drive would raise transportation costs in Alaska, despite the fact that the state is exempt from these rules, said a top trucking company official.

Proposed new rules issued by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration Dec. 29 would reduce the number of hours truckers can drive continuously in a day, and add caveats to the break times between work weeks.

James Maltby, director of health, safety, security and environmental with transportation company Alaska West Express, said that while Alaska is exempt from most of these regulations, changes likely would affect the carrier's pricing in Alaska and elsewhere.

"What companies would have to do is adapt to it and hire more personnel, which is going to increase costs, that's all there is to it," he said. "It's business. And if there's going to be increased cost, that increased cost has to be passed along."

Under current rules, outside of Alaska, drivers work a 14-hour duty period, which includes 11 hours of actual driving time. The remaining duty period hours are generally used for loading or unloading cargo and other supplementary work.

After that 14-hour period, the driver must take a 10-hour break.

But under the new proposed regulations published in the Federal Register Dec. 29, truckers would only be allowed to be on duty for a total of 13 hours, and the administration is considering reducing the number of hours of driving to 10.

Alaska truckers are exempt from the federal rules governing hours of service. Alaska truckers can drive no more than 15 consecutive hours following 10 hours of off-duty time. They may be on-duty for up to 20 hours.

The nation's drivers also are bound to between 60 hours and 70 hours per week, depending on whether they work a seven-day or eight-day week. In Alaska, the limit is increased to between 70 hours and 80 hours.

After that, drivers have to rest for 34 consecutive hours before driving again. Under the new regulations, drivers would have to include two periods between midnight and 6 a.m. in that reset period.

Barbara Windsor, chair of the American Trucking Associations, said the hours of service regulation would be harmful to commerce.

The major sticking point was the required midnight to 6 a.m. interval, which she said would lead to packed city streets at 6:15 a.m., right in the middle of rush hour traffic.

"What that will do to major cities in the United States is ridiculous," she said.

Windsor, who is also president and CEO of Hahn Transportation in Maryland, said April 21 the American Trucking Associations would continue to lobby against the regulations. If the rules pass, the organization is prepared to file a lawsuit.

A final rule for the hours of service regulations is to be published by July 26.

FMCSA issued the rulemaking, in part, to address fatigue concerns and to provide drivers with more flexibility to take breaks when they need to.

"As a person becomes fatigued, reaction times slow, concentration becomes more erratic, and decision-making is slowed; all of which affect the ability of a driver to respond quickly to a hazardous driving situation," the rulemaking stated.

The regulation can't force drivers to sleep, but it aims to allow truckers adequate opportunity to do so.

Windsor said she also was concerned that Congress hasn't reauthorized a highway bill to fund transportation infrastructure improvements. The last major bill expired in 2009, and Windsor said it is imperative that a new one pass soon.

"We have potholes, we have decaying highways, our bridges are falling apart. We need to get started on reauthorization," she said.

But a lack of money to pay for such big projects has stymied the process, she said. Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minnesota, former chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, had indicated a desire to address such a bill soon, but he lost his seat in the last election.

Windsor recently testified in favor of a bill, she said, and the current committee chairman, Rep. John Mica, a Florida Republican, understands the need for a new bill, she said.

Windsor said Mica has indicated a bill may be proposed this summer or fall.

Windsor also talked about the importance of trucking to Alaska's economy.

One of every nine employed Alaskans works for the trucking industry, Windsor said. Some $151.1 million is paid every year in state and federal taxes by the trucking industry, Windsor said. She said trucking companies pay employees more than $1 billion in wages annually.

Sean Manget is a reporter for the Alaska Journal of Commerce.

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