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Truckers took a pass in first recovery bill, but not this time

The pandemic has delivered an uneven hit to the trucking industry, and trade groups are now looking for loans and tax breaks

A truck rolls along I-95 in Oxon Hill, Md.
A truck rolls along I-95 in Oxon Hill, Md. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

As Congress worked last month to craft a federal response to the coronavirus pandemic, the asks came in fast and furious.

Airlines wanted $58 billion to offset the steep decline in demand. Transit wanted $25 billion. Amtrak asked for $1 billion.

The $800 billion trucking industry, meanwhile, didn’t ask for a dime, though advocates said they were hopeful members could have some access to the $350 billion in small business loans in the bill.

“We didn’t have enough of a sense of the economic impact at that point, other than we probably at that moment didn’t need a handout,” said Bill Sullivan, executive vice president of advocacy for the American Trucking Associations.

That may change in the weeks ahead.

An initial overall surge in demand for freight has bifurcated, with demand for food and medical supplies delivery remaining strong as deliveries of other products — fuel to airports and miscellaneous retail products — plummet.

The American Trucking Associations said it will likely request low-interest loans to help an industry that has been unevenly impacted. They are also considering asking for relief from taxes such as the trucking excise tax, which adds a 12 percent tax onto the purchase of new trucks and trailers. That tax, he said, can add as much as $20,000 to the cost of a new unit.

“We believe something like a holiday through 2021 of the federal excise tax is a really good idea,” Sullivan said.

The Owner-Operators Independent Driver Association, meanwhile, is asking for more funding for small business loans, allowing trucking companies to account for additional business expenses when applying for a small business loan and increased COVID-19 testing and protective equipment at weigh stations and rest areas.

Truckers have received praise during the pandemic for keeping the supply chain moving, with President Donald Trump holding a White House ceremony to honor their efforts, handing drivers a ceremonial key and declaring, “Thank God for truckers.”

But the industry has had to fight states to open up rest stops, and some truckers have complained that they’re barred from using restrooms at some of their stops because of fears that they might carry the virus.

Rest stops

The impact is becoming increasingly evident. On Friday, TravelCenters of America, which provides rest stops for truckers, announced it would furlough 2,900 field employees and 122 corporate employees, largely because of its restaurant closures at truck stops. The company operates 260 stops across the U.S. and Canada.

For some truckers, the impact is still taking shape. Bernice Mattson of Emmons, Minn., said her husband Randy used to take loads of used cooking oil from McDonalds and KFC from St. Cloud to St. Paul multiple times a week. He’s only going there once a week now.

Her son-in-law, Jesse, who is also a truck driver, used to do runs to a pork plant in Sioux Falls, S.D. But that plant got hit with the virus and “he doesn’t have that load now.”

“Our normal routes are just not normal anymore,” she said.

So far, the Mattsons have held off applying for small business loans. But that may change in the next few weeks, she said.

Sullivan said he has heard “largely positive stories” about the small business loan program.

“We did 10 years worth of (SBA) money in two weeks,” he said, marveling at the speed of the federal government in turning around the loans so quickly.

Others have been less impressed. Todd Spencer, president and CEO of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, which represents some 160,000 professional drivers and small business drivers, wrote in an April 14 letter to leaders of the House and Senate Small Business committees that members were struggling to access the loans.

“Unfortunately, our members are experiencing significant difficulties in securing this assistance and encountering a chasm between what was touted when this legislation was enacted and what they are actually receiving,” he wrote.

He added that other than “an initial spike in demand for delivering groceries and other essentials, most truckers transporting in other segments of the economy have seen a significant drop in business.”

“Between the lack of clear guidance from SBA and difficulty in getting a straight answer from lenders, our members are finding it is not as simple to apply as was initially promoted by the CARES Act,” he wrote. “While these small businesses and independent contractors are not being outright turned away, their experience has effectively given them that message.”

During the initial weeks of the pandemic, Spencer’s organization and the ATA focused not on funding, but on removing barriers keeping truckers from delivering their goods on time.

They asked for and received flexibility on hours of service rules and license and registration deadlines. They worked with states to open rest stops and provide access to food trucks.

But as the shutdown drags on, Sullivan said the industry is assessing what it might need from future coronavirus response bills.

Sullivan said the key goal is to keep the industry afloat as the pandemic drags on.

“Nobody knows what it looks like to turn that part of the economy off, then flip the switch,” he said. “Trucks want to make it light up.”