Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis said yesterday that if a threatened nationwide trucking shutdown occurs, "We will have no choice but to take those actions necessary to prevent violence and to protect truckers who continue to operate."
Lewis' statement came at the end of a day that saw the president of an independent truck drivers' group warn his drivers to stay off the roads beginning Jan. 31 to avoid the violence he said will accompany a shutdown scheduled by the rival Independent Truckers Association (ITA).
Jim Johnston, president of the Owner-Operators Independent Drivers Association of America, also said that a convoy of more than 100 trucks will drive into Washington Monday to protest recently enacted trucking taxes. While Johnston's group and the ITA are unified in opposition to the tax increase, Johnston declined to endorse the shutdown.
The convoy plans to cross the 14th Street Bridge about 10 a.m. that day, turn east on Independence Avenue to the Capitol area, then follow East Capitol Street to the RFK Stadium parking lot, where the drivers will park. They will hold a news conference later in the Senate's Russell Office Building. Johnston said the protesters will be peaceful and will avoid the rush hour.
Johnston and his group met yesterday with top officials of the Transportation Department, which is coordinating the federal government's response to the trucker unrest sparked by the tax increases scheduled to go into effect April 1. At the meeting, Johnston said, he outlined his group's three demands:
Repeal of the recently enacted truck taxes.
A limit on the freedom of the Interstate Commerce Commission to accept rate-cutting proposals by truck companies (in effect, a request for guaranteed minimum rates).
Action to force the states to standardize taxes and regulatory requirements involving truckers.
Lewis, whose last official day as secretary is the day the shutdown is supposed to begin, defended the new trucking taxes contained in the highway repair bill. He said that "by even the most conservative analyses, heavy trucks cause far more damage to the highways than passenger cars or even the lighter trucks."
However, Lewis said, the administration is willing to resubmit to Congress a proposal that would require the states to standardize trucking regulation and registration requirements.