An ongoing Department of Transportation study on the ramifications of allowing heavier and bigger trucks won’t likely end the decades-long debate over the issue, but it could provide Congress with a more definitive roadmap.
The DOT is studying the impact larger and heaver trucks could have on highway safety, pavement and bridge infrastructure, enforcement efforts and modal shift. Researchers are studying the effects of current weight limits allowing five-axle trucks to haul up to 80,000 pounds on interstate highways and the potential effects of allowing a five-axle truck with a weight limit of 88,700 pounds and a six-axle truck to haul up to 97,000 pounds. Three other truck configurations will be researched as part of the study scheduled to be completed by the end of September 2014, said Caitlin Rayman, director of the DOT's Office of Freight Management and Operations.
“We are not here to make policy,” she said on May 29 at the Federal Highway Administration's first public session seeking input from carriers, shippers and safety advocates.
Federal lawmakers, however, for years have introduced legislation on both sides of the debate, proposing legislation to increase truck sizes and weight limits, or pitching bills to block any changes to standards. Safety advocates and the rail industry’s intense lobbying — including a YouTube video featuring triple-trailer trucks swaying dangerously on a highway — helped defeat a bill that would have increased the truck weight limit to 97,000 pounds.
The bill, which would have been part of the last surface transportation bill, also would have allowed use of double and triple trailers on interstate highways in states where they are permitted. Through the surface bill, known as MAP-21, lawmakers ordered the DOT to complete the study as consolation to the trucking industry and its shipper allies.
Safety advocates warn that larger and heavier trucks will increase highway fatalities and the severity of accidents. The trucking industry counters the opposite would happen if larger and heavier truckers were permitted. The ability to haul larger loads would reduce the amount of trucks on state highways and spur drivers hauling heaver loads permitted in some states to get on safer interstates, American Trucking Associations spokesman Sean McNally said. The trucking industry and many major shippers, including Kraft Foods and Home Depot, argue that heavier and bigger trucks would help it blunt expected capacity shortages, which they say will be exacerbated by new federal regulations.
The Owner-Operation Independent Driver Association opposes raising trucks weight and size limits, arguing bigger trucks would hurt highway safety and infrastructure. Todd Spencer, OOIDA executive vice-president, pointed to the recent bridge collapse in Washington as an example of "how the stability of our nation’s highways and bridges is already compromised."
The railroad industry’s major objection to truck size and weight changes is that it says taxpayers would have to pay more to subsidize the damage caused by heavier loads, while railroads pay for their own infrastructure. “We fund our own infrastructure, so we think if Congress is going to go ahead and let the trucks increase the weight limit to 97,000 pounds, then they should ask the trucking industry to pay for the damage (to highways) caused by heavy trucks,” Union Pacific Railroad President and CEO Jack Koraleski said at the North American Rail Shippers' annual conference on May 30.
The trucking industry underpays by 26 cents per gallon, and to compensate for additional strain on the network caused by even heaver loads, the industry should pay $1.17 more in diesel taxes per gallon, Association of American Railroads spokeswoman Patricia Reilly said.
"Their assertions are based on a misinterpretation of a study whose data dates back to 1995,” McNally said. “We are willing to pay more but haven't stated how much. We support gas and diesel increases but might accept a diesel-only under certain circumstances."
The railroad industry also is concerned that a more favorable change for truckers could cost them freight. Short lines will likely be the most affected, but Class I railroads could lose market share to heavier trucks, too, AAR President and CEO Ed Hamberger said. Larger trailers also could hurt intermodal rail operations, because most rail well cars can’t handle containers larger than 53 feet, he added.
The results of the DOT study are unlikely to diffuse the debate. Countless studies on truck weights and sizes have come before, only to be picked apart or criticized by either side without changing the debate much. Still, the magnitude of the DOT study and researchers’ willingness to consult stakeholders is expected to give Congress a chance to make a more level-headed analysis of the issue. Whether legislators allow the study’s fact-based conclusion trump the emotional arguments put forth by both sides to voters, however, is another matter.