Truckers hoping Congress will melt 20-year freeze on truck size and weight limits

By John D. Schulz · February 2, 2012

It is about as emotional a topic as there is in the trucking industry—bigger trucks.

In this particular case, the trucking industry is lobbying Congress to allow merely heavier trucks—increasing from 80,000 to 97,000 pounds on interstate highways—at the discretion of the states that want to have them.
 
It is perhaps the most controversial measure included in the 600-page proposed highway bill that is currently being marked up by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. That five-year, $260 billion bill will have to be merged and compromised with a two-year, $120 billion version coming out of the Senate.
 
Whatever final legislation comes out, some shippers and carriers are hoping it will contain language that melts the current freeze on truck size and weight productivity that was won by the railroad industry in 1991.
 
The 80,000-pound limit was set in 1982, as part of the Surface Transportation Assistance Act. Industry leaders say after 30 years and numerous safety advances in technology and a stronger safety record than ever, it is time to revisit the weight standard.
 
They may have a case.
 
First, the good news: some 60 members of the House, including such heavyweights as Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska and Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., have signed on to support the Safe and Efficient Transportation Act (H.R. 763 and S. 747), which they hope to include in the bill that comes out of the House-Senate conference committee.
 
More good news: about 200 shippers, carriers and allied associations are supporting the bill that would authorize use of higher productivity, six-axle single-trailer vehicles weighing up to 97,000 pounds. Truck lengths would not be affected.
 
The bill would give states the option to implement higher weight limits on interstate borders within their limits—where appropriate. Backers say it would result in fewer trucks on the highways, less pollution, reduced emissions, bolster productivity and perhaps save as much as 2 billion gallons in diesel annually.
 
“Two billion gallons of fuel saved! Who would be against that?” asked Mike Regan, president of Tranzact and head of NASSTRAC’s advocacy committee, which is backing the proposal.
 
Oh, would you be surprised. Safety advocacy groups such as Public Citizen have routinely railed against past efforts to modernize truck weight laws, and can be counted on to do so again. Labor groups such as the Teamsters union also are against such legislation, even though Teamster drivers account for only about 60,000 jobs in the LTL sector out of the total of as many as 3 million long-haul truck drivers.
 
But truckers are confident they will at least get language in the highway bill to study the effects of heavier trucks—if they don’t get out-and-out Congressional approval to run them immediately in states that want them.
The industry feels it has some sound arguments on its side.
 
“Now that we have EPA-mandated engines, we run cleaner than ever before but all those emissions controls add weight to our trucks,” explained Barbara Windsor, president of Hahn Transportation, New Market, Md., a major tank trucker. “I get paid by the amount of product I haul. I am able to haul less now than I was a few years ago. To haul the same amount, I have to add trucks.”
 
That is a key part of the truckers’ argument—less congestion. “We are finding people understand on that,” Windsor explained. “When we tell people we don’t want to add to the highway congestion problem, people are understanding.”
 
Consolidating freight on fewer trucks would cut vehicle miles traveled, save fuel, reduce emissions and allow U.S. businesses to cut costs and improve their competitive edge in a global market place.
 
“We’re pleased that for the first time in 30 years, despite unfounded, yet curiously well-funded, attacks on the safety of our industry the House appears set to make much-needed reforms to federal truck size-and-weight reforms,” ATA Chairman Dan England, chairman of C.R. England Inc., Salt Lake City, said.
 
“Allowing states to choose to open their interstate highways to more productive trucks is an important step to reducing costs to American consumers and reducing congestion on our highways,” England added.
 
In an interview, England was asked if it was possible to eliminate the emotion from the topic of heavier trucks and just make a cold, business-like argument on the cost-benefit merits of such vehicles. His reply was brief, but telling: “No.”
 
In the past whenever truck size and weight modernization was proposed, safety groups played heavily on emotion to defeat such amendments. Sometimes, they even resorted to bringing relatives of truck accident victims—or the victims themselves—to make the argument against heavier or longer trucks.
 
While they may win the emotional argument against heavier trucks, facts seem to bar out the truckers in this case. To wit:
-The Department of Transportation and Transportation Research Board studies determined that 97,000-pound, six-axle trucks maintain nearly the same braking and handling capabilities as 80,000-pound, five-axle trucks;
-The United Kingdom raised its limits to 97,000 pounds in 2001 and since then, fatal truck accidents have declined by 35 percent, according to the UK Department of Transport;
The Wisconsin DOT found that if the 97,000-pound limit had been in place in 2006, some 90 truck-related accidents would have been prevented; and
-In 2010, Main and Vermont implemented pilot programs giving heavier, six-axle trucks full use of their interstates. Congress gave those two states ability to enact such change because evidence in pilot programs showed that it made the road networks safer, greener and more efficient.
 
As Maine (and Vermont) go, so goes the country? Truckers are certainly hoping so.


About the Author

John D. Schulz
John D. Schulz has been a transportation journalist for more than 20 years, specializing in the trucking industry. John is on a first-name basis with scores of top-level trucking executives who are able to give shippers their latest insights on the industry on a regular basis.

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