The White House’s recent request to make permanent pilot programs giving 97,000-lb six-axle trucks full access to interstate highways in Maine and Vermont is only a small step towards broader support for raising federal truck weight limits on a national basis, according to groups favoring them – noting that the push to increase truck weights nationally really won’t happen until next year.
“The Obama administration’s support [for the pilot programs] is a real breakthrough for us; it’s a ‘game changer’ on this [heavier truck weight] issue,” John Runyan, executive director of the Coalition for Transportation Productivity (CTP), told Fleet Owner. Without that support, the pilot programs are due to expire in December, he added.
However, he stressed that the Obama administration has not taken a position on the Safe and Efficient Transportation Act or “SETA” bill (H.R. 1799 in the House of Representatives and S. 3705 in the Senate), which would permit all states to set interstate weight limits of up to 97,000 lbs for trucks equipped with six axles instead of the typical five.
“They have not taken a position on the bill; just on the pilot programs in Maine and Vermont,” Runyan explained. “While we think that can helps us make these pilot programs permanent, we don’t expect real movement on the [SETA] bill until next year,” with the hope of adding it into the highway reauthorization bill, he said.
Yet the White House’s request last week to include a provision in the Fiscal Year 2011 Continuing Resolution formally asking Congress to make permanent Maine and Vermont’s heavier truck weight pilot programs indicates an important shift on this issue, as many industry experts previously believed allowing heavier trucks on the interstate highways was a non-starter for the Obama administration.
“I would think any movement on size and weight issues [for commercial trucks] would be restricted as much as possible, to very narrow lanes or just in certain areas,” noted Annette Sandberg, CEO of TranSafe Consulting and FMCSA’s former chief administrator from 2002 to 2006.
Speaking at FTR Associates 2010 Transportation Conference last week, she also believed any such operational restrictions would not provide enough incentives for carriers to invest in three-axle trailers required to haul heavier cargo loads.
Carriers at the conference also voiced concern on their ability to reap an adequate return on such high-cost equipment, and while most believed allowing heavier weight limits would be good for the U.S. as a whole – leading to fewer trucks on the road and thus reducing diesel fuel consumed by the industry overall – in the short term it would be too expensive for fleets to pursue.
Still, the American Trucking Associations (ATA) believes increasing truck weights in the U.S. remains an important goal – especially in terms of handling future freight volumes – and is encouraged by the Obama administration’s support for the Maine/Vermont pilot programs.
“We greatly appreciate the President’s support for changes that will improve safety and economic productivity,” noted Bill Graves, ATA’s president and CEO. “Existing restrictions on truck weight limits constrain the trucking industry's efforts to reduce crashes, help our customers to remain competitive in global markets and lower our carbon footprint.”
He also pointed out that “class of roadway” is a leading indicator in truck-involved fatal crashes and vehicle weight has not been shown to be a contributing crash factor, so allowing heavier trucks to use interstates instead of secondary roads would help improve trucking safety.
CTP’s Runyan also pointed to a study conducted by H.O. Bouchard, a logging and trucking contractor based in Hampden, ME, that measured the safety benefit of running heavier trucks on highways versus local roads. By using the highway, the logging fleet avoided 270 intersections, 86 pedestrian crosswalks, 30 traffic lights, nine school crossings and 3,000 residential driveways it would encounter using secondary roads – previously the only ones that allowed for the transportation of loads exceeding 80,000 lbs.
“We’ve been back-and-forth over the safety issue, but this on-the-ground experience really changed things,” he said. “Now, each state has a different dynamic when it comes to how allowing heavier trucks would affect traffic flow, etc. But our goal is to allow the states to make their own decision concerning the operational of these specific kinds of trucks. That’s what the [SETA] legislation we’re supporting seeks to accomplish.”