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Vol. 18, No. 32 Week of August 11, 2013
Providing coverage of Alaska and northern Canada's oil and gas industry

AK-WA Connection 2013: Truckers score major wins in Juneau

Alaska Legislature approves bills aiding oil and gas sector, roads, veterans and small businesses; curbing federal over-reach

Rose Ragsdale

Alaska-Washington Connection

For the Alaska Trucking Association Inc., 2013 is shaping up to be a very good year.

The organization has nearly 200 members and is growing. This diverse group of trucking and intermodal companies supplies Alaska businesses and consumers with vital transportation for their goods and materials. In addition to traditional trucking firms, ATA membership includes ocean and air carriers such as the Lynden family of companies, TOTE, Horizon Lines and Federal Express, most of whom have their own trucking fleets, as well as freight forwarders, logistics companies and trucking equipment vendors.

Many of ATA’s members are based in Washington State or have parent and/or sister companies with headquarters or offices in the Puget Sound area.

“We continue to value our Washington connections. Some are over the highway and some are ships,” but Washington is an important business partner. We value that connection, and we hope they value us,” said ATA Executive Director Aves Thompson.

A recent example is the connection established when Saltchuk Resources acquired Carlile Transportations Systems Inc. in June.

“These are both good strong companies, and we are looking forward to work with Saltchuk to help tell our story,” observed Thompson.

Transportation advocate

Typically a low-profile organization, ATA works in the background to advance the interests of its members. This year the association stepped up to champion an impressive roster of proposals before the Alaska Legislature, the Alaska congressional delegation and state and federal agencies in hopes of scoring some big wins for its members and Alaska, in general.

“Of our 10 priorities in legislative session, eight were successful,” said Thompson. “We’re very pleased about the passage of Senate Bill 21, the oil tax reform bill. Although there was some opposition, we feel it was matter of education.”

The trucking association successfully sought to redefine intrastate commercial vehicles, thereby removing an unnecessary level of regulation for smaller trucks used in commerce.

“Our No 2 priority was HB15, which changed the definition for intrastate commercial vehicles from 10,000 pounds to 14,000 lbs, which makes it easier for small trucks used in commerce,” Thompson said.

The smaller vehicles are typically used by small businesses with a local trade area such as handyman or lawn-mowing services.

Alaska lawmakers further favored House Bill 46, which waived CDL skills testing requirements for certain veterans; appropriated $7 million in the capital budget for improvements to the Dalton Highway and several projects on the National Highway System along with funding to expand resource development through the state’s “Road to Resources” program.

“HB46 waived the requirements for testing veterans with experience driving heavy vehicles. This was a big win for veterans, giving them the opportunity to smooth out transition between military and civilian life and a big win for industry because we are having trouble finding drivers,” Thompson said.

Obtaining funds for road improvements and development in the FY2014 capital budget represents another big win for the truckers.

The Legislature also passed House Bill 4, which promotes the development of an in-state gas line from Prudhoe Bay.

The $7 million for Dalton Highway improvements and maintenance will be especially important in light of the plans to begin trucking liquefied natural gas from Prudhoe Bay to Fairbanks, Thompson said.

“The number and frequency of trucks is going to have an impact on the Dalton Highway,” he said. “The state is going to have to step up and make a commitment to keeping up the highway, not just the maintenance but also keeping crews available to keep (Anaktuvuk) Pass open and make other repairs as needed.

Only two measures failed to make the cut: A plan to establish a transportation fund; and a proposal to invest in the Knik Arm crossing.

Though its failure to pass is disappointing, the transportation fund bill is still alive in committee, Thompson said.

“The federal government doesn’t have as many resources as in past, and we believe we need to start using Alaska revenues to do infrastructure development,” he said. He noted that Alaska DOTPF takes in about $70 million annually, but it costs only about $30 million to run the department and the balance goes into the state’s general fund.

House Bill 23 would have amended the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority’s enabling statute to provide funding for a successful procurement for the Knik Arm Crossing project to facilitate it being open for traffic in 2015. Proponents argue that the Knik Arm Crossing will be a significant addition to Alaska’s infrastructure that will further facilitate the movement of goods and people in the state. The measure also stalled in committee.

Government relations

Thompson said ATA continues to have a good relationship with the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, Gov. Sean Parnell and DOTPF Commissioner Patrick J. Kemp, P.E., and he thanked both houses of the Legislature for their help and support of legislation beneficial to the transportation sector, and singled out Rep. Wes Keller, R-Wasilla, for additional praise.

“They seem to understand how vital trucking is to the state. We move a lot of freight,” he said

Alaska’s lawmakers also endorsed several resolutions to defend Alaska’s transportation industry against federal over-reach with regulations.

“We keep facing this federal overreach in terms of regulation. Trucking is one of the nation’s most regulated industries and the regulations keep changing. If you don’t have stable regulations, it makes it very hard to plan for the future,” Thompson explained.

He said the new federal MAP (Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act) bill, for example, will require trucking companies to meet 29 new rulemakings in one year, he said.

“We recognize that we need to be regulated, but give us a chance to adjust to the regulations before you start changing them,” he said.

Among other challenges facing the trucking association is the effect of recent changes made to radio bandwidths by the Federal Communications Commission.

FCC “narrowbanding” rules went into effect Jan. 1 requiring all UHF/VHF radio users to operate with 12.5 kHz, or narrowband radios, as opposed to traditional 25 kHz, wideband frequency radios.

Longstanding FCC regulations require companies using two-way radios to operate only on assigned frequencies. In Alaska, these regulations have largely been ignored by trucking companies for decades because there are relatively few radio users. But the FCC is now enforcing the rules, which could significantly hinder the ability of Alaska’s truckers to communicate with each other and their customers in emergency or hazardous situations.

Thompson said the ATA was working to gain FCC approval for its members to talk with each other over approved radio frequencies.

The association sought FCC exemptions that would allow for two open frequency bands — an “alert” band and a “chat” band — to be used by any two-way radio users in Alaska, including public safety organizations. Thompson was awaiting a ruling on the exemptions in June but did not expect any difficulties in obtaining them.

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