The Western Governors Association believes there’s ample room for longer combination vehicles on High Plains highways, but must convince Congress to thaw a freeze limiting the use of double- and triple-trailer trucks.
Lifting of the ban on LCVs will depend on whether railroads are willing to reverse their long-standing opposition to longer and heavier trucks, and whether LCV advocates can convince legislators the 110-to 120-foot vehicles are a safe, green transportation option.
But with the federal government deadlocked on many issues, including highway spending, LCVs aren’t even on the long list of congressional priorities.
“This year is a tough row to hoe,” said Earl Eisenhart, a principal with Government Relations Services who advocates expanding the use of LCVs. “We’re focused on developing grassroots support in the states and educating public officials.”
At its annual meeting in Whitefish, Mont., last month, the WGA approved a resolution calling on Congress to allow the U.S. Department of Transportation to consider proposals for LCV pilot tests to evaluate the benefits and costs of additional LCV routes.
The WGA resolution, proposed by South Dakota Gov. Michael Rounds, a Republican, and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, “is a major milestone,” Eisenhart said. “It’s something the industry has been seeking for a long time.”
“The distances across the West clearly illustrate the need for efficient surface freight movement of goods,” the governors said in a statement accompanying the resolution. The use of “more productive” vehicles “can reduce dependence on foreign oil and diesel engine emissions, resulting in positive impacts on the global climate and the health of our citizens.”
But that’s precisely the point the U.S. rail industry raises when it touts the environmental advantages of railroads over long-distance trucking, and that means the governors’ resolution may run into trouble at the nearest rail crossing.
For nearly 20 years, Class I railroads and public safety groups have opposed attempts to lift the freeze and expand the use of doubles and triples that reach 110 to 120 feet in length and weigh as much as 135,000 pounds.
Under the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, states were prohibited from increasing the size and weight of combination vehicles beyond the limits in place on June 1, 1991. LCVs were limited to certain highways in 21 states where they ran before 1991 — mainly in the Rocky Mountains and Western Plains.
Shippers and truckers have long defended the economic benefits of LCVs, which have been estimated to improve productivity 30 to 100 percent per driver over single-trailer trucks.
The American Trucking Associations and other industry groups now often cite environmental benefits first, an argument picked up by the western governors. Greater use of doubles and triples would mean fewer exhaust-spewing tractors pulling individual trailers, cutting truck-miles traveled and emissions.
According to a 2004 Federal Highway Administration study cited by Eisenhart, a limited increase in the use of LCVs in 13 western states would reduce heavy truck vehicle miles traveled by 25 percent, cut fuel consumption and emissions by 12 percent and save shippers $2 billion a year. Pavement costs would fall 4 percent over 20 years, and highway noise would decline 10 percent.
While that study and others didn’t get Congress to lift its LCV freeze, the growing importance of sustainability to business, the prospect of climate change legislation and shifts in transportation policy give LCV backers hope.
“You’re starting to see a bit of a sea change on this issue,” Eisenhart said. “There are groups looking at energy and environmental issues and the benefits that can be derived from going to these more productive trucks. In terms of the WGA resolution, I didn’t detect any opposition from the railroads.”
The LCV issue may provide a stress test of closer relations between the rail and trucking industries recently hailed by ATA President Bill Graves, who told the Los Angeles Transportation Club last month the “Hatfield and McCoy days are over.”
There may be life in that feud yet, but “I think there are some positive signs there,” Eisenhart said. He sees the LCV issue as separate from attempts to raise the overall truck weight to 97,000 pounds, which the railroads oppose strongly. Also, the interest in LCVs is mainly found in states where they already operate.
“There are specific routes the individual states are looking at,” Eisenhart said. In South Dakota, for example, there are new interstate highways that run parallel to state routes approved for LCVs, “but they’re not allowed on the interstates.”
Contact William B. Cassidy at email@example.com.