More productive trucking: An opportunity and a struggle

July 1, 2003
CONGRESS asked for it. But now that it has the results from the requested study on truck size and weight laws, will Congress authorize larger trucks?

CONGRESS asked for it. But now that it has the results from the requested study on truck size and weight laws, will Congress authorize larger trucks?

The Transportation Research Board (TRB), the unit of the National Academy of Sciences, last year released the results of a study involving potential changes to existing size and weight regulations. A session at the Truck Trailer Manufacturers Association convention in Amelia Island, Florida, provided a summary of the study and the struggle for control of truck size and weight regulations.

According to Joe Morris with TRB, opportunities exist to improve the efficiency of the nation's highway system through reform of federal size and weight regulations.

“The present network of regulations is an arbitrary system that has grown up over the years without any guiding principles that would nationalize the whole system,” Morris said. “There are flaws in the way federal regulations are administered, and there are proliferating exceptions and exemptions to federal regulations. Most problematical: there is no procedure for orderly change in federal regulations in response to changes in technology and highway conditions.”

The report was released about 10 months ago. Among its recommendations:

  • Creation of a Commercial Traffic Effects Institute

    This publicly funded organization would observe commercial vehicle performance and the effects of size and weight regulations. Rather than serving as a regulatory agency, the institute would be a resource to regulators.

  • Pilot studies

    The studies would be controlled experiments that would analyze the effects of proposed changes in vehicles and vehicle operating practices. Existing size and weight regulations would be waived for vehicles participating in the pilot studies. These large-scale trials would make it possible to evaluate vehicles under actual operating conditions.

  • Immediate changes in federal regulations

    States would be allowed to participate in a federally supervised permit program for operation of trucks that are heavier than the current federal limit. “The committee did not say what the best size and weight limits are, but it proposed a mechanism for getting better limits,” Morris said.

  • Longer combination vehicles

    According to the study, states should be allowed to issue permits for the operation of six-axle tractor-semitrailers with maximum weight of 90,000 pounds, doubles sets consisting of trailers up to 33 feet long, and a continuation of the current bridge formula.

Hey, wait a minute …

But no one thinks getting Congress to seize this opportunity will be easy. In his presentation as part of the panel, Jim March with the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) mentioned many of the players who are lining up to oppose proposals to increase truck size and weight regulations.

Chief among them, March said, are the railroads. They will lobby intensely against such changes, principally because such measures have the potential to shift significant freight off the rails and onto trucks.

Groups such as Citizens for Responsible and Safe Highways (CRASH) and similar organizations also can be counted on to fight any moves to liberalize truck size and weight laws. Other opponents include the American Automobile Association, Teamsters, and owner-operators. Even some members of the trucking industry have expressed opposition.

“The trucking industry is not monolithic,” March said. “We have national carriers versus regional carriers, truckload versus less-than truckload, general freight versus specialized freight. All of these industry groups have different requirements, different needs, and different views of what kinds of changes truck size and weight policy would help them. Interestingly, we have a number of smaller carriers that don't feel they would be aided by any kind of change in size and weight limits. They would have to invest in new equipment, and they feel the profits would only go to the shippers — not to them.”

Good idea

Supporters of increases in size and weight regulations include Americans for Safe and Efficient Transportation — composed mostly of shipper groups — and the Multi-State Highway Agreement, a coalition representing western states' legislatures and trucking interests.

One group has been lobbying for larger tractor-trailers. They don't want to get into the longer combination vehicle debate, but they think that there is room for a lot of productivity benefits if they could gain approval of 97,000-pound tractor-semitrailers operating on six axles.

Motorists, March said, were a wild card in the debate. While many have been conditioned to oppose large trucks, some may recognize that there can be fewer trucks on the road if trucks are allowed to haul more.

States' state of mind

State governments have a big stake in size and weight regulations because they own and operate the highways, March said.

States are concerned about infrastructure, particularly in this time of tight budgets. TRB has suggested that there needs to be some changes in user fees to help recoup those costs.

“State perspectives are strongly shaped by the economics,” March said. “They have always been inclined to try to help their local industries. In many cases, agricultural or extractive industries have weight exemptions that are not granted to all carriers in the state.”

Been there

March said TRB 267 was not the first study Congress has requested. The most recent one on truck size and weight was the Comprehensive Truck Size and Weight Study.

“The Department of Transportation has never recommended any changes in truck size and weight policy after its studies,” March said. “It usually comes up with the conclusion that we need to get more study and analysis. It's a great way to put off making hard decisions, but the environment in which these decisions are made is tremendously controversial. Unless the states support some form of change, it will be very difficult for change to be realized.”

March commended the TRB for the approach it took to offering specific recommendations instead of calling for additional studies.

DOT was invited to comment on the recommendations that TRB made in its report, but the department declined to do so. He stressed that his comments were his own and not those of DOT.

The pilot projects have already come under some criticism from people who have a vested interest in the status quo. Their position is that pilot programs are inherently dangerous because they involve testing vehicles that haven't proven to be safe.

“I think that's not a very productive way to approach this,” March said. “TRB obviously thought there would be close monitoring of any kind of pilot program to make sure that if safety issues were uncovered, they would be addressed and the pilot either modified or stopped.”

Adverse political pressure

Political pressure may discourage politicians from acting on this study, too.

“Congress, by itself, is unlikely to jump on the bandwagon of these recommendations,” March said. “I think it's going to have to be part of an industry proposal. The railroads and some of the other groups that we talked about clearly are going to oppose it. People have heard their message.

“I think in the end TRB is to be commended for the study and the approach that they took. It took considerable nerve to really back away from another study of the individual impact and to address some of the fundamental, institutional, and political problems that we face and to try to come up with a recommendation. Whether or not all of it flies, it's hard to tell, but it's clearly going to be on the table in the next six to nine months.”

Highway congestion will become more acute and more widespread by 2020, Darrin Roth, director of highway operations for the American Trucking Associations, said in his presentation at TTMA. The United States has few options to alleviate the problem, and those options generally are not palatable.

“The only way to reduce congestion is either to build more highways or reduce the number of trucks on the road,” he said. “The only way to reduce the number of trucks on the road is either to have a deep, long-lasting recession or improve the productivity of trucks.”

As one way to reduce truck traffic, some have suggested shipping more freight by rail.

“Trucks and trains generally don't compete,” Roth said. “They generally serve different markets. The railroads compete in some ways with trucks with their intermodal deliveries, but rail intermodal is 1% of the freight market by volume, and trucks have 68% of the market by volume.”

Roth said the growth in truck traffic between 2002 and 2014 will exceed total volume of freight moved by the railroad industry in 2014 by more than 400 million tons.

“We have to deal with the issue of congestion, not just because none of us like to drive on congested highways, but because there are going to be impacts on reliability of deliveries and the subsequent ability of manufacturers to engage in on-time deliveries.”

Dependent on trucks

The switch to lean manufacturing and just-in-time inventory has made a significant improvement in the nation's industrial efficiency and has saved approximately $600 million per year. It's a system, however, that has made America increasingly dependent on trucks. Trucks reportedly account for approximately half of traffic congestion. As congestion gets worse, trucks will become more vulnerable to route restrictions, time-of-day restrictions, and tighter environmental and safety regulations, making on-time deliveries more difficult.

Roth pointed out that in 1998, less than 30% of urban interstate highways carried more than 10,000 trucks. By 2020, more than 60% of the urban interstates will have heavy truck traffic.

Roth disagreed with objections to the TRB report.

“Some have described the pilots as using the public as guinea pigs in uncontrollable experiments, and that's just nonsense,” he said. “In essence, the experiments are already happening. Each year almost a half million overweight divisible load permits are issued in 33 states, and other states allow overweight operations without permits. For the most part, these operations are neither controlled nor monitored.”

Other points he made:

  • The changes would be incremental.

  • There is no federal pre-emption of states under this scenario.

  • Regarding highway and bridge impact, the research done by the institute would give state DOTs a stronger basis for determining size and weight limits that are appropriate to their infrastructure. It also would indicate the types of construction needed to accommodate current and future truck configurations. Very little information exists now, Roth said.

  • The TRB would work because it would transfer the debate from the political realm to the scientific realm. The decisions would be based on science — not on politics.

  • Legislation implementing TRB recommendations would include a built-in guarantee that larger trucks would have to pay any additional costs that they impose. “This takes away the railroads' primary argument that heavier trucks would not pay their fair share, and the railroads would be forced to compete with subsidized industry,” Roth said.

Proposed legislation

Roth provided a summary of the Safe Highways and Infrastructures Preservation Act (SHIPA). Among the things the law would do:

  • Extend interstate weight limits to the entire national highway system, basically adding a little over 100,000 miles.

  • Create a federal freeze on trailer length at 53 feet and extend federal non-divisible load requirements to the national highway system.

  • The bill grandfathers higher weight or length limits. “However, passage of the bill will result in rollbacks because of a couple of provisions,” Roth said. “One requires that, in order for states to get a grandfather right, they will have to prove that a certain truck not only was legally allowed to operate at that weight or that length, above the federal limits, but also that it was in actual operation. It is virtually impossible in some cases to prove that some trucks were in actual operation, especially in states where a permit isn't required, or the permit is fairly loose.”

  • A 90,000-pound GCWR for a six-axle truck and double 33-ft trailers. “This is not very attractive to very many carriers,” Roth said. “I think some expected the LTL package carriers to adopt the double 33s. However, I think that the committee was right in that there are certain trucks that don't need pilot programs when there is enough information on them already to justify the states' allowing those trucks to operate.

Failing to act

“Bottom line: we'll have more trucks, or we'll have more productive trucks. That's the choice that Congress has to make, and there really are no realistic alternatives. I think the most realistic scenario is that Congress will just ignore the issue as they have in the past. However by failing to act, they will have made a choice, and there are clear consequences associated with that choice. It's incumbent on the trucking industry to let Congress know what those consequences are, and we will. We hope Congress does decide to act responsibly and implement TRB 267. But change won't happen easily without a concerted and cooperative effort by everybody who cares about the future of the trucking industry.”

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