Dillon acts as big rigs' biggest booster

PHOTO/James MacPherson/AJOC
Whether in a public forum or on the street, Frank Dillon never misses the opportunity to drive home his point about the importance of the trucking industry and the need for improved highways.

"If you got it, a truck brought it,’’ said Dillon, executive vice president of the Alaska Trucking Association Inc. "Trucking is not a necessary evil. It’s as vital to our way of life as blood is in your body."

Whatever is eaten, worn or otherwise consumed and then disposed was delivered or hauled off in a truck, says Dillon who has represented the 300-member state trucking association for the past 13 years.

Dillon has never driven big rigs commercially, although his bearlike stature and flat-top haircut would likely make him hard to pick out at a truck stop. An anthropologist by education and a lobbyist by trade, Dillon is a master public speaker and parliamentarian, attending scores of meetings that are in any way transportation related, promoting the trucking industry, its importance and image.

"Everything goes on a truck one way or another,’’ Dillon said. "We don’t understand, as a citizenry, transportation. People are mystified by it and take it for granted. Without the trucking industry people would not have the opportunity to make choices from the clothes they wear to the food they eat."

Trucking is the ninth largest employer in the United States, and holds about the same ranking in Alaska, where about 22,000 people bring home a paycheck from a trucking-related industry, Dillon said.

Commercial trucks and trailers make up about 5 percent of the total vehicle registrations in Anchorage, according to the state Division of Motor Vehicles. The number of registered commercial vehicles act as a indicator of the state’s financial health, as registrations rise and fall with Alaska’s economy, according to DMV statistics.

There are about 35,000 Alaskans who hold commercial driver’s licenses, though not all work in the industry at any given time, Dillon said.

The trucking industry contributes about $700 million annually to the state’s economy, Dillon said.

Trucking, Dillon said, is what ties all other transportation modes together. In Alaska, truckers and their companies enjoy a cooperative relationship with airlines, the railroad and oceangoing shippers, Dillon said.

The trucking organization also has a good relationship with trucking unions in the state, something that isn’t always the case elsewhere, Dillon said.

In the Lower 48, the trucking industry and railroads often vie for the same freight. But in Alaska, the trucking industry and the Alaska Railroad Corp. complement each other, Dillon said.

"Trucks here to not compete with the railroad, and we don’t have an adversarial relationship with them,’’ Dillon said.

The railroad last year pulled more than 36,000 100-ton hopper cars from Palmer to Anchorage. Dillon said it would be impractical, unsafe and cause much wear and tear on roads if trucks were to haul those loads.

Alaska has about 15,000 miles of roads, only about 22 percent of them paved, according to state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.

Alaska needs more roads and increased maintenance and improvements to those it has, Dillon said.

According to state estimates, nearly $8 billion is needed to bring the state’s roads and transportation facilities to an acceptable level.

Improvements to the state’s transportation infrastructure make roads safer for truckers and motorists, lowers the cost of moving goods, and the air becomes cleaner when traffic is not congested, Dillon said.

But building roads takes too long, largely because of an onerous environmental review process that can stop a road project or delay it for many years, Dillon said.

He has led a nationwide effort to streamline the National Environmental Policy Act, a law crafted 30 years ago that requires government agencies to consider affects to the environment by federally funded projects.

Dillon says he supports the intent of the law, but it’s being used as "a roadblock to road building," because it has been abused and distorted by road-building opponents and environmentalists.

"We have to go back and change the National Environmental Policy Act," Dillon said. "NEPA has been absolutely manipulated and has become a bureaucratic Christmas tree, designed to impede infrastructure development.

"Today, if we wanted to build the Parks Highway, it couldn’t be done,’’ Dillon said. "If you fill in a wetland, it is a crime."

Dillon has worked with his contemporaries in nationwide trucking organizations, and with Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, to streamline and make less burdensome the environmental review process for highway construction and improvements.

Young, Dillon said, is committed to amending the environmental review process, a key feature to the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, which expires at the end of the year.

Young will be the principal architect in the legislation, which provides billions of federal dollars for planning and building transportation projects in the United States over the next several years.

Another major issue facing the trucking industry, and ultimately consumers, is a new federal ultra-low sulfur diesel requirement used for highway vehicles.

The requirement goes into effect in four years, but Alaska may be given an extension to 2010.

Still, Dillon said, because vehicle engines will be built starting in 2007 to use only the low-sulfur diesel, the fuel will have to be made available in the state.

Dillon’s organization has estimated that the new fuel could add 20 to 25 cents a gallon to existing prices, which will make for increased freight rates.

01/27/2002 - 8:00pm