Heavier trucks in our future?

Carriers that want weight limits on trucks to be raised from the current 80,000-lb. level to a proposed 97,000 lbs. may get their wish granted just not yet. At no time in recent memory has the move toward higher weight limits been so strong, owing its momentum to a convergence of higher fuel costs, continued weak driver retention, increased congestion, and political jockeying that now finds railroad

Carriers that want weight limits on trucks to be raised from the current 80,000-lb. level to a proposed 97,000 lbs. may get their wish granted — just not yet.

At no time in recent memory has the move toward higher weight limits been so strong, owing its momentum to a convergence of higher fuel costs, continued weak driver retention, increased congestion, and political jockeying that now finds railroad interests somewhat muted about an issue on which they were adamantly opposed.

“What's odd now is who is not vocal,” said a congressional staffer. “The railroads have always fought higher weight limits for trucks — for obvious competitive reasons — but now they are less vocal.”

Railroad stakeholders privately note that their current interest lies in an investment tax credit for infrastructure building, and they would be willing to ease their fight against heavier trucks if the trucking industry would not oppose the tax issue. Still, others close to lobbying efforts suggest that because railroads are running near capacity, trucks present less of a competitive threat, especially if diesel prices remain high.

Truckers and shippers make compelling arguments for higher limits. This is especially true for companies that haul extremely heavy products. Tom Carpenter, director of transportation for International Paper, in July told Congress that for just one of its mills, in Courtland, AL, their 35,000-lb. trucks can carry up to 45,000 lbs. of paper before reaching the 80,000-lb. limit. “If the weight limit was increased to 97,000 lbs., we could increase the weight of the cargo on each truck from 45,000 lbs. to almost 60,000 lbs. We could then transport the 27 million lbs. of paper from Courtland to customers each week on 450 trucks instead of 600.” He added: “The 150 fewer trucks on the road driving the 628 mi. one-way results in a reduction of 94,200 vehicle miles traveled each week. With fuel today costing 77 cents per mile, the fuel savings would be close to $73,000 per week, with a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions each week of 130,000 lbs.”

Supporters of higher weight limits, including Americans for Safe and Efficient Transportation (ASET), a coalition of shippers, carriers and others, point to several more positive aspects of heavier trucks. They note that fewer, albeit heavier, trucks on the road annually would produce 25,000 fewer crashes and less congestion because 10 million fewer truck miles would be driven and 1.9 billion gal. less in fuel consumed, resulting in an industry-wide savings of $16 billion.

The main arguments against heavier trucks rest mainly on potential infrastructure damage and safety. “Truckers such as OOIDA members know from first-hand experience that further increases in sizes and weights of commercial motor vehicles can endanger highway users and hasten the deterioration of our nation's roads and bridges,” said Bill Farrell, owner of Bill Farrell LLC based in Missoula, MT, and a member of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association. Although proponents contend that adding an extra axle would mitigate damage to roads and bridges, the issue of safety is still debatable. “We're not saying that heavier trucks are good or bad,” says Steve Campbell, Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance's executive director. “There needs to be more study. That's what's missing.”

Campbell was echoing a conclusion of the largest U.S. study of heavier trucks, which was published in 2002 by the Transportation Research Board of the National Academies. While the report was generally receptive to the idea of heavier trucks, it noted that more studies needed to be done on the effect of safety and infrastructure.

Although several bills have been introduced in Congress to increase weight limits, the best chance for passage lies within the massive highway appropriations bill that is up in 2009. The prime person for truck stakeholders to convince on the merits of heavier trucks is Jim Oberstar (D-MN), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Although he has opposed heavier trucks in the past, he recently has expressed interest in seeing more data on the issue.

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