Washington Insider
Will the next president take the lead on trade?

By Laura O'Neill
OOIDA government affairs counsel

For the first time in more than 20 years, transportation issues are in the spotlight in a presidential election. Fuel prices, alternative energy resources and a crumbling national infrastructure have actually proved to be important issues to the average voters and not simply to those of us in the trucking industry.

Yet one issue seems to have fallen off the national radar since its sexy debut in the 1990s: North American trade.

Although facets of North American trade remain important to some of us, the issues don’t go before citizens for a vote. That gives certain officials free rein to behave badly and push for regulations that will affect jobs, small businesses and consumers.

Regardless of who wins the presidential election, someone must take the lead on North American trade and make sure that North America is an environment where truckers – particularly small-business truckers – are able to compete and thrive.

During the summer, Canada’s Minister of Industry Jim Prentice attended a forum in Atlanta and preached about his commitment to open borders. He emphasized the fact that Canada and the United States exchange billions of dollars of goods each year in trade. He further recognized that the beefing up of the border between Canada and the U.S. only impedes goods movement and that we must develop ways to improve the flow without impacting security.

This is all well and good, but the minister failed to recognize that Ontario’s speed limiter legislation, approved by lawmakers as Bill 41, will essentially act as a trade barrier for U.S.-based trucking companies that do not employ speed limiters on the engines of their trucks – or about half of the trucking industry. This certainly will affect the ability of U.S. trucks to haul into Ontario, give a monopoly to Ontario based trucks, and influence the price of the goods.

It isn’t the first time a province or state meddled in international trade. Last year the Michigan Legislature passed a new business tax that non-Michigan based truckers must pay – and that includes truckers from Ontario – even if they go only to Michigan a couple times a year. This tax has Canadians very concerned.

What we could be witnessing between the states and provinces is the emergence of an economic tit for tat. That is, the mind-set of “in order to protect our interests, we must exclude others.” Without a national vision, who will this end up hurting? The small-business owner who can’t afford to speed limit his truck or pay the extra state taxes necessary to compete – that’s who.

Someone on a national level must reiterate what our commitments are to one another. If we are to close the borders, then let us be honest and close the borders, not simply allow states and provinces to make the decision for us via taxes and nonsensical regulations.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, despite firm congressional warnings, has reiterated the administration’s commitment to allowing Mexican trucks to come across the border without meeting the stricter U.S. standards.

Again, who will this hurt? Certainly not the larger carriers, but rather the small-business truckers who are struggling to keep up in this economic climate.

So on one hand, we have a thriving trade relationship with Canada – facilitated greatly by small-business trucking companies – which local lawmakers seem to be surreptitiously eliminating. And on the other hand, we have federal officials trying to open the border to Mexico and impeding the ability of small-business truckers to compete.

After the buzz of election season calms, I hope we will have a commander-in-chief who understands the value of the small-business trucker and will lead the nation in the right direction. LL