Thursday, January 21, 2010

The cost of doing business with Matty

It’s hard to believe that one individual can wield so much power over the busiest border bridge in North America, but that’s the way it is with Matty Moroun and the Ambassador Bridge.

Matty owns the bridge and sets the toll rates, and anyone caught suggesting an alternative crossing or threatening his empire feels his wrath. It’s been that way for years.

Alternative proposals may come and go, but there’s Matty … intimidating the competition and standing as tall as the 400-foot towers that suspend his beloved Ambassador.

But are we starting to see a softer side to the bridge magnate and trucking-company mogul? The Detroit Free Press reported this week that Matty was prepared to make a generous offer to help the cash-strapped state of Michigan.

To nobody’s surprise given the economy, Michigan is falling well short of being able to qualify for certain transportation matching funds from the federal government.

In what seems like a generous offer, Mr. Moroun says he would ante up “toll credits” plus the value of $400 million in private bridge construction projects to help boost the pool Michigan draws from in the state’s quest for a federal match. It would seem like a welcome and legal shot in the arm if it were to pan out.

But before we get ahead of ourselves in thanking Matty for his generosity, it must be noted that he has placed some very specific terms and conditions on his offer.

You see, Matty is in it for Matty; he always has been and always will be.

The catch, he says, is that the state of Michigan must promise not to use any of the matching funds to pursue an alternative bridge downstream from the Ambassador.

Moroun wants to keep and increase traffic on his own bridge by building his own twin span. Any downstream alternative threatens to take business away.

“It’s just business,” he seems to say to detractors.

If anything is certain in this, it’s that truckers are the ones giving Matty Moroun plenty of business. Conservatively, he’s got to take in at least $150,000 each day from trucks.

The approximately 10,000 commercial trucks that cross the aging four-lane span each day pay between $3.25 and $4.50 per axle depending on weight, and that doesn’t include an extra 50 cents per axle for oversized loads.

Simply put, this is the cost of doing business with Matty Moroun.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Spinning wheels

News reporters are a cynical bunch.

Combine those reporters with trucking, and you can imagine Land Line’s newsroom has rolled its eyes at countless politicians, regulators and other power players who have spun reality into a campaign.

One recent release from the California Air Resources Board is a textbook example of spin.

This week, CARB sent out a news release touting its greenhouse gas emissions regulation for commercial diesel trucks. The rule, also known as CARB’s SmartWay rule, takes the EPA SmartWay voluntary program and makes portions of it mandatory for any truck driving through the state.

I’ll let the release speak for itself:

New rule for long haul-truckers expected to lower costs, improve fuel efficiency
Measure expected to eliminate one million metric tons of greenhouse gases by 2020

SACRAMENTO – Long-haul truckers in California are already on the road to saving money and reducing air pollution, thanks to a new regulation designed to improve fuel economy and lower greenhouse gas emissions.

The entire release is available here.

The rest of CARB’s announcement essentially tells truck owners that they are fortunate to be regulated by CARB. As such, CARB has found ways truckers can save money, by forcing them to use certain equipment, such as aerodynamic truck and trailer retrofits, and low-rolling resistance tires to improve fuel mileage.

As always, the devil is in the details. CARB’s bastardization of SmartWay – a voluntary program – isn’t logical.

SmartWay was successful because it was voluntary and helped truck owners identify technologies specific to their business, to help them.

CARB’s rule blankets most trucks that enter the state. Whether they’re regional or long-haul, the regulation requires truckers to put a portion of those technologies on their truck.

Some of those products may be beneficial to truck owners that will be complying with the rule.

The regulators, however, are missing the point.

Regulators don’t understand that some trucking operations can’t use CARB-approved low-rolling resistance tires. Others may work in ways that make the aerodynamic retrofit options difficult or impossible to use consistently.

Most importantly, the regulators don’t understand that small-business truckers know their business. Even many of the most careful trucking businesses have been hurt or shuttered during the economic collapse of the last two years.

If there are spare pennies to be saved by the mile and by the gallon, most truck owners are doing it.

If these small-business drivers were inclined to issue their own homespun press release, it might go something like this (with edits):

“Truckers to CARB: Your heart may be in the right place, but your regulations are [killing] providing new problem-solving opportunities to us.”

Truckers have been “helped” by CARB for decades now. Most recently, with efforts to “help” us clean the world’s air and save money, your agency has required us to begin saving and spending tens of thousands of dollars per truck.

We understand your rulemaking process takes a number of years, but your timing during our recent economic [crisis] “opportunity” couldn’t be worse.

Please consider obtaining input from actual working truckers and small trucking businesses before you [uneven the playing field for us] distribute grants to some large California businesses or develop any more rules to [strangle] help us.

Thanks again,

Small-business truckers

Monday, January 18, 2010

Technologies’ assault on road safety

Unless you’ve not spent one day in our entrepreneurial society, you probably saw this coming. Just as talk about curbing driver distractions has seemingly reached its peak, with officials from state government and the federal government joining in the fray, automakers and high-tech companies are unveiling their newest toys for drivers to play with while at the wheel.

Driver distractions have been an issue since the first time wheels hit the road. Through the decades the distractions have changed, but the consequences can be just as deadly. We’ve seen government step in occasionally to curb certain distractions such as cell phone use. We’ve also seen government look into limiting other distractions. These efforts range from everything under the sun, including prohibiting pets from sitting on their owners’ laps while heading down the road.

Early this month at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, technology giants such as Intel and Google showed off the latest creations they have been working on with automakers. The results, while amazing, are concerning. They have done such things as build video monitors above the gearshift to display the highest-quality videos, 3D maps and access to the Internet.

Fortunately, drivers are prevented from watching video and using some functions while the vehicle is moving, but they are still allowed to “surf” the Web for anything else.

While the techies and automakers say that safety is a priority, they are far from convincing. Take for example the folks at Ford. They are preparing to roll out an option to read aloud tweets from Twitter.

But the topper for me comes from Jaguar. Their new XJ model has a split screen with the capability of displaying a map to the driver and a movie to the person riding shotgun. Pass the popcorn!

We understand that everybody is out to make a buck, but you would hope common sense would somehow prevail. In this economy, technology companies and automakers appear to have put any safety concerns well behind the rearview mirror in hopes of selling their products.

Tech companies and automakers cannot get them out on the road fast enough. It is anticipated that the first wave of these rolling information/entertainment systems will be available to consumers this year.

This is just the beginning of the latest round of assaults on roadway safety by technology. It should be a concern to everyone, including truckers. Professional drivers have no choice but to work alongside other distracted drivers. The public should let automakers and lawmakers know they want nothing to do with this when they’re out on the road. Just because tech and auto companies can make something doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.