The drumbeat is still faint, but make no mistake about it — the campaign to raise truck weight limits is well underway. The American Trucking Assns. and the large for-hire carriers that form its core membership are lining up allies for a battle that should peak next year as Congress puts together the 2009 highway funding bill.
In the mid-1990s, the idea died before it even made it to the formal proposal stage when there appeared to be a great deal of opposition and only tepid support from fleets. Conditions are quite different now.
Congressional testimony last month by Michael Smid, president and CEO of YRC North American Transportation, provided the first solid outline of the bigger truck proposals. Testifying on behalf of ATA, Smid proposed eight reforms to federal truck size and weight regulations. Most were fairly minor, but the major proposal hidden among the eight was boosting tractor-trailer GVW limits to 97,000 lbs. with a tridem trailer axle. Smid also suggested lifting the 80,000-lb. GVW limit on five-axle combinations, which would allow a maximum of 86,000 lbs. with spread axles under existing federal axle weight and bridge formula limits.
The arguments in favor of the higher weights haven't changed over the years. Trucks carrying more cargo are more productive, remove vehicles from congested roads, help conserve fuel, and hold down transportation costs. They would also bring the U.S. closer to Canadian and Mexican standards, removing an impediment to transborder trade.
The objections haven't changed either. Heavier trucks could compromise highway safety, do more damage to the highway infrastructure, and provide little payback to consumers in reduced transportation costs.
So what's changed? Why does ATA believe that they can overcome those objections now when they've failed in the past? Public perception. Faced with the high cost of gasoline for their own cars, the general public is suddenly sympathetic to truck drivers struggling with even higher diesel prices. National news sources are running story after story about small fleets and independents parking trucks because the price of diesel has eliminated any profit. If I'm paying $75 to fill up my tank, I'm going to empathize with truckers paying around $1,000 to fill theirs. And if I'm looking at car-pooling, downsizing and every other strategy to cut my gasoline bill, I certainly understand truckers trying to boost their productivity by carrying more cargo.
ATA has picked up on the shift in public perception and sees an opportunity. In the push to get the required federal legislation, they should be able to answer the highway infrastructure and cost arguments fairly easily. There really is only one major issue that needs to be addressed: safety.
Proponents of heavier truck weights need to proceed carefully here. They can't rely on the old industry sources that can be easily dismissed as biased by critics. What's needed are unimpeachable, third-party studies of the issues surrounding heavier or longer trucks traveling in large numbers on our roads.
So far, ATA has correctly identified the public's willingness to at least consider the issue of truck productivity. Let's hope they follow through with convincing evidence on how we can make those bigger trucks safer as well.