Over the years, U.S. Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) has stepped out of his congressional role and worked on a roadcrew, at a butcher shop, delivered mail, and even bagged groceries. On Sept. 3, he drove a loaded tractor-trailer from Missoula to Billings to get a better "feel" for the needs of his trucking constituents.
"Spending a day in someone else's shoes helps me to understand what's important to them," says Baucus, senior Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. "The more time I spend listening to and working alongside everyday Montanans, the more effectively I can fight for their interests in the U.S. Senate."
Baucus' latest work day was a bit of a challenge, as the Montana senator didn't just want a "ride along." He wanted to drive. Baucus does not have a CDL, but does have a learner's permit. Larry Barton, safety director at Watkins-Shepard Trucking Co. told Land Line that Baucus followed all procedures to qualify with the company. Baucus filled out all the paperwork, took a physical and a drug test, and completed orientation. He spent two days starting to learn how to maneuver a big rig, first with a bobtail, then with a trailer, and then doing a little mountain driving. Baucus' driving instructor, Tom Walter, was Watkins-Shepard's driver supervisor. Walter, who has been training drivers for more than 30 years, told Land Line Baucus was "a very good student."
Early on the morning of Sept. 3, Sen. Baucus took the wheel of a 1998 Volvo 610 pulling a 53-ft. dry van owned by Watkins-Shepard in Missoula. Accompanied by Walter, the U.S. Senator headed for Billings (a distance of 340 miles). The rig Baucus operated is equipped with a 370 hp Detroit Series 60 engine and a 10-speed transmission. The trailer was loaded with new furniture. Baucus drove the entire trip (even dealt with a logbook) and assisted with unloading when he delivered in Billings late Friday afternoon. The trip is expected to give Baucus a first-hand look at a trucker's life as well as the opportunity to talk to truckers about their concerns.
"Trucking is big business in Montana," says Baucus. "Trucking helps support one in 11 workers in Montana . and provides $690 million a year in payroll. And truckers in the Big Sky State deliver more than 80 percent of manufactured freight destined for Montana locations."
Baucus noted that trucking in Montana was critical to the economy.
"These men and women deliver the food on our tables and help get the gasoline to our cars and trucks," Baucus said. "When you stop to think about it, they help power our economy. We can't underestimate the importance of trucking to a land-locked state such as ours."
The trip also provided Baucus with a chance to check the conditions of Montana's highways, which got a boost last year when he helped deliver an annual 60-percent increase in federal highway funding to Montana over six years. Montana now receives $260 million a year in federal highway funds, up from the previous six-year annual average of $162 million. As a principal architect of the national transportation funding, Baucus helped deliver that increase to improve Montana's highways. The funding maintains about 11,000 jobs in Montana.
"Driving a rig over the road is a great way for me to get a good handle on trucking and highway issues in Montana," says Baucus. "We're a highway state. And trucking is an important component of our state's economy."