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2017 Transportation Outlook: Mark Walker

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Mark Walker traded Silicon Valley for the Ozarks mountains in 2013, when the Drury University graduate agreed to take over the position of CEO for family-owned trucking company Transland.

2017 Projection: An equally robust trucking industry and economy to last year and possibly a slight uptick, despite industry projections of a decline.

SBJ: What’s the trucking industry outlook in 2017?
Mark Walker: Prior to November elections, in early October, the American Trucking Association’s chief economist gave us all a projection of 1.5-2 percent growth in 2017 and that was down from 2-2.5 percent, which we estimated it would do about a year ago. It really looked like things were pretty much going to be flatlined. We see a number of things as indicators. We see shipments from manufacturers, we see sales of new trucks and new trailers, we see sales of used trucks all as kind of barometers. Used truck sales have been really languishing the last year or so. New truck sales have certainly not been as robust as people have wanted, and projections have been they’re going to be a little bit slow in 2017. Those were the projections before the election. I have not seen projections since. But the optimism is much greater than it was before. Our business has been very busy, October, November and December. Oftentimes, it slows down in those months. Just knowing that the fourth quarter has been pretty decent is a good, hopeful sign.

SBJ: What are the imminent challenges?
Walker: Part of our ability to meet demand from shippers is the transportation company’s ability to hire and retain quality, professional, drivers and the driver shortage in our industry continues to be a real challenge for everyone. That will not change in 2017.

SBJ: How much would President-elect Donald Trump’s proposed infrastructure improvements affect your industry? According to U.S. Department of Transportation, nearly 12 percent of all bridges had reduced load limits due to deterioration.
Walker: Even worse are Missouri’s DOT statistics. Missouri’s infrastructure is crumbling. Essentially, everything is 60 years old and in dire need of upgrades and built to handle much less capacity than is traveling on roads today. There absolutely has to be new ways of obtaining revenue so that we can build the appropriate bridges and highways to move America’s freight in a manner that continues to keep passenger vehicles moving comfortably as well. There are lots of bridges closed in Missouri or weight limited. If you’re in the flatbed heavy-haul business – which Transland is, Prime Inc. is, Steelman Transportation is, all of us – (and) we are doing oversize, overweight loads here in Missouri, we have limited routes that we can take if one needs to cross the Missouri River or the Mississippi River, for example.

If you were making a Christmas list for the transportation industry, the No. 1 thing on our list is going to be highway infrastructure funding for 2017, state and federal.

SBJ: Isn’t that going to be a challenge in any capacity for any level of government?
Walker: It has been. It is addressed by both incoming governor [Eric] Greitens and President-elect Trump. Both of them have identified it as a high priority for them. That is welcoming, so we will see if they can get anything done.

SBJ: In Missouri, what are some ways to fund highway improvements?
Walker: The Missouri Trucking Association believes that an equitable fuel tax increase is the best way to raise the needed amount of funds and have those who use the infrastructure pay for it.

SBJ: The 2015 attempts by the legislature to raise the fuel tax by 2 cents failed. The 2016 attempt to raise the tax by 6 cents failed. Why should it be increased?
Walker: Missouri’s fuel tax is 17 cents per gallon today. That is the lowest price of any state around us. Some states pay more than 30 cents a gallon on fuel tax. Our fuel tax is significantly lower and we have the sixth or seventh amount of roads to maintain in the country and our tax base to maintain that ranks as 46 or 47 in the country. The gap is huge and that’s one of the reasons we have such problems.  

SBJ: You’ve mentioned concerns of driver shortages and infrastructure deterioration. Any others for 2017?
Walker: A soft economy would be a third. We’re not seeing signs that it’s going to be a soft economy, but we can’t really tell that it’s going to be much more robust that it has been. We’re optimistic that it will be even with 2016 or slightly better.

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