Commentary: Truckers make case for longer, heavier vehicles
The U.S. Department of Transportation is wading into a sticky thicket after a provision in last year’s MAP-21 transportation law mandated a study on the controversial issue of increasing federal standards for the size and weight of tractor-trailers.
Industry officials hope that the study will definitely silence critics who say longer, heavier vehicles are a hazard and do more damage to roadways.
Some motor carriers want to increase the federal gross vehicle weight limit to 97,000 pounds with an extra sixth axle that takes pressure off the roadway and others are seeking longer combination vehicles. Several states were grandfathered to allow the larger vehicles while others permit their use during special pilot programs or for emergencies, such as bringing in relief supplies following a hurricane.
Railroads have typically opposed the expansion of truck standards because of fear their intermodal franchises will lose business. During the debate for the SAFETEA-LU transportation legislation in 2005, the trucking industry and railroads engaged in a truce to not raise the issue to ensure passage of a broader law.
The study, which is due by Oct. 1, 2014, will compare the safety risks, infrastructure impacts and effects on levels of enforcement between those operating at current standards and motor carriers legally operating in certain states in excess of federal limits.
The analysis will look at crash rates and safety risk factors, impacts on pavement and bridges, the cost to shippers of having to detour trucks from bridges unable to accommodate heavier loads, the levels of compliance and the cost to deliver effective enforcement.
DOT officials say they will host a series of stakeholder listening and information sessions for people to register their interest in or concerns about bigger trucks.
Two prominent transportation executives urged Congress at an April hearing on freight policy to change the rules on truck size and weight to help increase productivity and get more use from existing infrastructure.
“The United States has the most restrictive truck weight regulations of any developed country. At the same time, America’s freight transportation demands are greater than that of any other nation, and we have the world’s most well-developed highway system,” Derek Leathers, president and chief operating officer of Werner Enterprises, said in prepared testimony.
“Congress must reform its laws to give states greater flexibility to change their size and weight regulations, and should also modernize vehicle length standards,” he said.
Fewer trucks are required with larger vehicles, which helps reduce emissions, congestion and crash exposure, Leathers argued.
He cited government research from 1994 and 2000 that claimed bigger trucks could decrease shipping costs by as much as 11 percent. The new study is expected to update whether those statistics are still valid.
Frederick Smith, chairman and chief executive officer of FedEx Express, wants his FedEx Freight and FedEx Ground units to be able to upgrade from the 28-foot standard for twin trailers, set by Congress in 1982 and frozen into law a decade later, to 33-foot tandem trailers.
He insisted the longer twins would not increase wear-and-tear on highways.
The 33-foot trailers “would allow a carrier, on any given lane, to grow the volume of shipments carried up to 18 percent before adding incremental miles,” he said. FedEx is comfortable with the current 80,000-pound weight limit because as a company that carries a lot of parcels and small shipments its trailers fill up before they reach the statutory weight limit.
“You are way underutilizing the pulling power of the vehicle,” Smith said. Going to a larger pup trailer would take 600,000 truck trips per year off the road for FedEx alone, he added.
Smith said studies show that an increased trailer length is as safe, or safer, than the existing 28-foot length in terms of handling on the road and FedEx drivers find them to be more stable.
Leathers said truckload carriers such as his usually cube out before they weigh out, too. - Eric Kulisch