“The reality of trucking plays out before our eyes every minute of every day; trucking touches every American life.”

— Philip L. Byrd

BY RON BRINSON

Spend just a few minutes with Phil Byrd and you sense he’s determined to transform public tension and misunderstanding about trucks and truckers to public appreciation of what he calls the “essentiality” of the trucking industry.

Now he has ascended to the leadership pinnacle of his industry. In October, the St. George native will be installed as chairman of the board of the American Trucking Associations. His colleagues are cheering proudly, and we truck-dependent South Carolinians should too. The ATA chairmanship is a big deal and provides a platform for telling and selling Byrd’s “reality” theme to Congress, state legislatures and the public.

The ATA is an 80-year-old Washington-based advocacy conglomerate representing more than 37,000 members and every form of motor carriage in the United States. It’s widely respected among the most effective of Washington-based trade associations. Former Kansas Gov. Bill Graves is ATA’s president and CEO.

Byrd’s premise is that trucking’s strategic importance must always be aligned with public policies and priorities. We might consider our state’s current economic operation and its impressive core sectors — automotive, agriculture, aerospace and jet plane manufacturing, retail, health care and modal logistics. All are truck dependent.

The Port of Charleston, the state’s public infrastructure dandy, doesn’t work without trucks. Over 70 per cent of all Port of Charleston containers arrive or depart by truck. Even railed containers at Charleston usually require an intermediate truck move.

“Every state has a ‘truck dependency’ story,” Byrd says. “The challenge is to translate these stories into policies for enhanced highway safety and freight movement efficiencies, and better roads and bridges for everybody.”

Highway funding is a major national policy issue — and South Carolina is its poster child. South Carolina’s fuel user fee is 16 cents per gallon and has not been increased since 1986. More efficient engines, inflation and ever-higher costs have eroded the state’s buying power.

But Byrd points out that the federal government has dug itself a similar hole, which compounds road funding challenges for states. The federal fuel tax of 18.4 cents has not increased since 1993. And the Congressional Budget Office recently warned that the federal Highway Trust Fund will not be able to meet its commitments and obligations come 2015. The challenge: Congress must cut transportation spending by 92 percent, or raise the fuel tax by more than 50 percent to bring revenue and spending in line.

Byrd, a low-key and measured man, believes user-based fuel fees should be increased and indexed. “It’s important to stabilize funding with user-based revenue sources,” he says. “We have to create the mindset of priorities and investment; good highways are necessary for growing the economy and for highway safety. Truckers understand that we’re getting what we pay for — and we want better, we need better and we’re ready to pay more.”

Byrd also intends to promote trucking as a human-based profession.

“Truckers are professionals,” Byrd says. “Drivers are publicly licensed and regulated — and they are accountable. Drivers understand they need to earn an image of ‘professionalism’, and we see that happening all over the country. What truckers do and how they do it should always command the public’s respect.”

This “earned image and respect” initiative relates to the industry’s looming human resource challenge. “We need to recruit and train 96,000 new drivers a year for the next decade,” he says. “And that’s just to keep up with current demands.”

Byrd believes that nurturing the public’s view of the professional qualifications and performance of drivers will help recruiting. “The focus is how drivers are trained, compensated and then respected for what they do”, he says.

Phil Byrd lives in his boyhood home outside St. George. He graduated from Charleston Southern University in 1976 and then worked for his father at Holly Hill Lumber in the shipping department. When that business was sold, he followed his interest in logistics and human resources. In 1983, he teamed up with trucking legend R.D. Mosely, founder of Bulldog Hiway Express. Byrd became Bulldog’s president and chief executuve officer in 1986. The North Charleston firm has become a diversified interstate carrier operating nationwide. And Byrd has become a popular “go-to” state and national industry leader. He has served two terms as chairman of the S.C. Truckers Association.

Patrick Barber, owner of North Charleston’s Superior Transportation considers Byrd a mentor: “Phil knows every function of trucking from marketing and sales to safety best practices to driver deliveries. A good man is going to Washington to represent our industry and our state.”

Ron Brinson, a former associate editor of this newspaper, was president/CEO of the American Association of Port Authorities from 1979-86 and president/CEO of the Port of New Orleans, 1986-2002. A North Charleston city councilman, he can be reached at rbrin1013@gmail.com.