The Great Weight Debate

April 30, 2013

Truck size and weight has always been a controversial issue and the debate is heating up as Congress has agreed to study the increasing truck sizes and weights to 97,000 pounds on six axles.

The Safe and Efficient Transportation Act (SETA), recently reintroduced in Congress as H.R. 612, would allow states to decide where and when to utilize six-axle trucks with gross vehicle weights of up to 97,000 pounds. Twenty-two states currently allow heavier six-axle trucks on some portion of their state road networks. SETA would allow them to optimize their network by opening select interstate routes to these trucks as well.

Truck size and weight issues have been around for more than 60 years and they are complex and controversial. And the issue over whether heavier trucks should be allowed on the nation's interstate highways pits unions, independent truckers, highway safety groups and railroads against agricultural groups, shippers and the American Trucking Associations.

The key issues revolve around truck productivity, the environment, safety and highway damage.

The American Trucking Assns., trucking's largest trade association says allowing more productive trucks will not hurt, but improve highway safety. "There are dozens of studies demonstrating that allowing more productive trucks through reform of federal size and weight regulations will reduce the risk of truck-involved crashes, both by reducing the number of trucks on the road and by shifting trucks to highways better equipped to handle them," ATA states in a policy paper.

ATA says the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) found that the accident rate for longer-combination vehicles (LCVs) is nearly half what it is for standard tractor-trailers. Studies from Canada, where LCVs are widely used, have found that the accident rate for LCVs is five-times lower than the rate for conventional trucks.

Canadian studies have also found that in the 10 years since LCVs came into wide use, truck registrations fell 19%, while overall vehicle registrations rose 23%, and concluded that increased productivity was responsible for reducing the number of trucks on the road.

FHWA research supports this conclusion, ATA contends. The agency found that if LCV regulations in the western United Sates were simply harmonized, truck miles driven would fall 25.5%. Applied to statistics on highway fatalities, harmonization would have saved 140 lives in 2008.

Furthermore, FHWA concluded that allowing heavier trucks nationwide would reduce truck miles traveled by 11%, preventing 500 fatalities annually. Allowing heavier trucks on Interstate highways will also divert them away from secondary roads, ATA asserts, preventing even more crashes. A study in Maine, where heavier trucks are allowed on state roads, but not on most Interstates, found that the fatality rate on secondary roads is 10 times higher than it is for the Interstate system.

The trucking lobby also contends that increasing truck weights, while maintaining axle weights (i.e. the amount of weight diffused by each axle) by adding axles, can reduce pavement maintenance costs for state, local and federal governments.

The U.S. Department of Transportation found that increasing truck weights nationwide would save taxpayers $2.5 billion over 20 years in pavement maintenance costs, and expanding the use of longer combination vehicles would save another $400 million over that same time frame.

A Wisconsin Department of Transportation study found that allowing six-axle trucks with a gross weight of 98,000 pounds would save the state more than $10 million a year in highway repair costs.

While increasing truck weights can accelerate the deterioration of bridges, these impacts can be minimized by good management, the trucking association says, and the costs are likely to be dwarfed by pavement, safety, environmental, congestion and shipping cost savings.

ATA also cites a variety of studies that clearly show that increasing truck productivity will cut fuel usage, and subsequently reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants. A report by the American Transportation Research Institute found that increasing truck productivity could reduce fuel usage by as much as 38%. A six-axle, 97,000-pound single trailer truck gets 17% more ton-miles per gallon than its 80,000-pound, five-axle cousin, and a turnpike double (a single tractor pulling two 48-foot trailers) improved mileage by between 33% and 38%.

The U.S. Department of Transportation found that allowing heavier trucks nationwide would cut transportation costs by 7%, and expanding the use of LCVs would provide savings of 11%, ATA says.

A Federal Highway Administration study found that using LCVs in a truckload operation could cut a shipper's logistics costs by between 13% and 32%.

"Dollars not spent on transportation can be taken out of the price of goods that U.S. consumers pay for, making improved trucking productivity a win-win for shippers and consumers," ATA says. "Furthermore, because the U.S. has the lowest truck weight limits of industrialized countries, increasing our business productivity through size and weight reform will make domestic industries more competitive, keeping American jobs at home."

The Coalition for Transportation Productivity (CFTP), a group of over 200 shippers and allied associations "dedicated to giving state governments the ability to allow appropriate interstate access for heavier six-axle trucks" recently wrote Congress with their take on the issues.

"The U.S. now lags our major competitors in North America, Europe and Asia in the widespread use of six-axle vehicles that reduce their cost of delivery. Providing states with the option to maximize the use of six-axle trucks is an effective and safe way to increase truck productivity and America's freight capacity while reducing congestion, decreasing fuel use and emissions and improving fleet safety," CFTP says.

There is a great deal of misinformation being generated about SETA and we offer the following information for your consideration, the organization wrote.

Facts they say legislators should consider:

FACT: H.R. 612 is long overdue. The bill addresses a decades-old limitation that doesn't account for the transportation innovations of the 21st Century. In 1998, the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) requested recommendations on truck weight reform from the National Academy of Sciences' Transportation Research Board (TRB). One of TRB's top recommendations was that Congress establish pilot programs to allow heavier 6-axle rigs on select interstate highways. The Safe and Efficient Transportation Act (SETA, H.R. 612) would finally address this recommendation by giving states the opportunity to utilize heavier, six-axle vehicles on select roads and bridges. It places the decision of where to allow these trucks with state transportation authorities, rather than leaving that decision to Washington.

FACT: Congress did not reject the Safe and Efficient Transportation Act in the last Congress. In February 2012, in a complex procedural motion, some provisions of SETA were linked with separate language regarding longer combination vehicles. A substitute amendment replaced this hybrid provision with a Department of Transportation (DOT) study on "truck size and weight." This study which will include a review of extensive research from numerous state, international and academic sources will soon be added to the expansive body of existing literature demonstrating that wider use of six-axle rigs would enable shippers to be safer, greener and more productive. The federal study will help inform states of issues relevant to the use of these vehicles and give guidance for safe implementation. Not all truckers are onboard with increasing truck size and weights, however. The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Assn. has fought hard against the increase based on issues of highway safety and increased wear and tear on highways and bridges. OOIDA supports the current freeze of 80,000 pounds on five axles, as does the Teamsters Union.

The biggest opponents of more productive trucks are the small cartel of freight railroad companies that claim more productive trucks will divert rail freight.

Groups like the Coalition Against Bigger Trucks, also claim that trucking doesn't pay enough for its use of public roads and increasing trucking productivity will exacerbate this problem.

Other groups oppose size and weight increases claiming heavier trucks are more dangerous.

The Truck Safety Coalition (TSC), a coalition comprised of P.A.T.T. and Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways (CRASH) has charged collusion on the part of federal and state highway departments and trucking interests to downplay the safety hazards of bigger trucks.

On October 15, 2010 TSC sent a request under Maine's Freedom of Access law to MaineDOT for records related to Maine and Vermont heavier truck pilot program. "After sending a subsequent letter to Maine Governor John Baldacci, the Truck Safety Coalition received documents which revealed that: 1. FHWA found serious safety issues with allowing these overweight trucks on bridges; 2. MaineDOT and VT DOT pressured FHWA to downplay these safety issues in the Congressionally-mandated six-month report and instead stress unproven economic benefits; and, 3. Taxpayers will be the ones to pay the price for these pilot programs as costs to repair roads and bridges will be pushed onto them," TSC says "We were initially astounded to discover that federal and state government officials were collaborating behind closed doors with special trucking interests during the pilot program, John Lannen, executive director of the TSC, said. "Safety and public interest groups were never involved or even contacted. Then we were further shocked to learn that state and federal government employees had proof that putting 100,000 lb. trucks on bridges could reduce the factor of safety and cause them to overstress. They ignored the hazards and plowed ahead with this dangerous, ill-advised plan."

Truckers will get multiple opportunities to weigh in on the issues. The Federal Highway Administration recently selected a firm to collect and analyze data and plans to solicit comments. A $2.3 million awarded a contract to CDM Smith to assist with the Comprehensive Truck Size and Weight Limits study mandated in the current highway law MAP-21, Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century.

"The contractor team is well qualified to collect the data, and the study will analyze numerous issues related to truck size and weight limits to support DOT's report to Congress required under (MAP-21)," the FHWA said in a statement. The FHWA anticipates more than one opportunity for the public to comment. "FHWA plans to give the public multiple opportunities to comment throughout the process, and the report will be independently peer reviewed before it is finalized next fall," the agency said. "This effort will ensure that DOT produces a report that is objective, data-driven, inclusive, and comprehensive."

Following are links to more information and key players in the size and weight debate:

Coalition for Transportation Productivity The American Trucking Assns. The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Assn.

Truck Safety Coalition

Truck Weight Limits Issues and Options

Federal Truck Size and Weight Policy Looking Beyond the Comprehensive Truck Size and Weight Study:,d.cGE

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