A sweetheart deal for the trucking industry has been put on hold after two Congressmen blocked a key provision in legislation introduced in the House of Representatives.
House of Representatives bill No. 7, or H.R. 7, is entitled the “American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act of 2012.” It was introduced by Rep. John MIca, a Republican from Florida’s Seventh District, which runs from just north of St. Augustine to a bit south of Daytona Beach. The purpose of H.R. 7 is to authorize funds for highways, public transportation, safety programs and for other similar purposes.
As happens with most legislation, H.R. 7 was referred to committee, in this case, the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure of which the chairman is, conveniently enough, Representative John Mica.
H.R. 7 is a massive document: 847 pages of corrections and changes to existing legislation, excruciatingly detailed instructions to guide the Secretary of Transportation in the distribution of the funds and things like whether it’s okay to use federal funds to pay Indian labor working on highway and road projects on tribal lands (it is). It’s unknown how many of our Congresspersons have actually read the thing but at least some did and they came across Section 1404, “Trucking Productivity,” which starts on Page 151 of the official Government Printing Office document. (If you’re interested in reading H.R. 7, click here.)
Section 1404 contains a provision raising the maximum allowable weight for a tractor-trailer from 80,000 pounds to 97,000 pounds and increases the maximum allowable length to 80 feet for certain combinations.
Some states already permit heavier trucks and longer trailers inside their borders than the federal limits. Some also allow multiple trailers or “road trains.” But what Rep. Mica’s bill would have done is pressure all states to allow the higher limits. This is something the trucking industry has wanted for years because it allows them to move more freight with fewer trucks and fewer drivers. It’s a bit strange for legislation that is called a “Jobs Act” to facilitate the elimination of jobs but this is, after all, Washington.
Of more importance to the nation’s citizens is the potential for real danger on the highway and the assurance of greater wear and tear on the roads and bridges that are already wearing out faster than we’re fixing them. Public opinion polls have consistently shown overwhelming opposition to increasing truck sizes and weights. An April 2011 Lake Research Partners poll found 74 percent of Americans oppose heavier trucks.
Rep. Mica pointed out that Great Britain already allows gross vehicle weights of 97,000 pounds and the results have been generally positive: fewer trips meant fewer emissions, costs went down and there wasn’t a spike in traffic accidents. However, Mica didn’t mention, and, more importantly, didn’t add in H.R. 7, the limits placed on the heaviest trucks. When the new weight limit was enacted, the maximum-load trucks were limited to railhead operations. They couldn’t be loaded or unloaded anywhere but the railhead and the final destination. The rules were actually intended to permit the transport of intermodal containers. When the rules were relaxed, there were still conditions that remain today: Trucks and trailers must have “road-friendly” air suspensions; they cannot be operated at speeds above 60 miles per hour and they can’t be more than 18.75 meters (about 61.5 feet) long. The British government also spent $452.8 million strengthening bridges and roadways before the new weight limit was allowed. The other factor that wasn’t mentioned was the distances the British rigs generally traveled: less than 100 miles.
One interesting finding reported in a review of the impact of higher weight limits in Great Britain indicated that weight was generally not really an issue. The majority of the trips made by the heavier trucks involved loads that were nowhere near the limit. The trailers were usually “cubed out” or filled to capacity long before reaching the maximum permissible weight. This would seem to contradict the statements made by John Runyan, executive director of the Coalition for Transportation Productivity, a group supporting the higher limits. Runyon claimed Section 1404 would “allow shippers to safely utilize wasted truck space that remains empty at the current 80,000-pound federal weight limit.”
The International Brotherhood of Teamsters has gone on the record in opposition to the legislation. At a press conference lest Wednesday, Hoffa said, “Many Teamsters drive for a living and they know up close the dangers involved if the size and weight of commercial trucks on our highways are increased. Heavier and longer trucks mean greater stopping distances and shorter reaction times. This legislation is treacherous to the driving public.”
In a January letter to Rep. Mica, Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey voiced his opposition: “Larger and heavier trucks mean bigger safety risks for highway drivers. Even though overall traffic fatalities declined in 2010, the number of people killed in crashes involving large trucks increased nearly nine percent over the number of fatalities in 2009. While one in 25 registered vehicles on the highway is a large truck, a large truck is involved in about one in every nine fatal crashes, and a fatal truck crash results in the death of the occupants of the other vehicle in approximately 75 percent of cases. The fatal crash rate for large trucks is 2.4 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled—more than 50 percent greater than the rate for all vehicles on the roads.
“Larger and heavier trucks also mean more wear and tear on our infrastructure. This point is critical, considering the backlog on highway and bridge maintenance in the current budgetary climate. Nearly 27 percent of our nation’s bridges are in need of serious repair, including 36 percent of New Jersey’s bridges. The National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission estimated that the cost to meet the country’s transportation needs is $225 billion each year.”
Yesterday, Representative Lou Barletta, a Republican from Pennsylvania’s 11th District, and Representative Jerry Costello, a Democrat from Illinois’ 12th District killed the increases, at least for this session of Congress.
Barletta was concerned the bill would be a mandate for a nationwide adoption of the new limits. He echoed the comments of others, noting that larger and heavier trucks are involved in a statistically higher percentage of fatal traffic accidents and cause more damage to highway infrastructure than governments can recoup from usage fees and permits.
“All trips begin and end on local roads. The cost of fixing these roads is in the hands of local taxpayers. Heavier trucks will damage local roads, which are not built to handle the extra weight. Local roads will become potholed, buckled, and broken much more quickly. They will need to be repaired and replaced sooner, and the cost for that will fall squarely on local governments and local taxpayers,” Rep. Barletta said.
Barletta had received an e-mail from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation that read, in part: “The Commonwealth cannot accommodate larger and heavier trucks on its interstate system at this time. If we are going to move in this direction, PennDOT must be given an opportunity to evaluate major trucking routes, identify the necessary improvements and have funding in place to make them.”
“This e-mail states that Pennsylvania’s highways will not be able to handle the increased truck weight allowed by this bill,” Barletta said. “This study is absolutely needed before such a major change is allowed,” Rep. Barletta said. “Pennsylvania has 5,000 structurally deficient bridges. Our neighboring state of Ohio has 4,000 structurally deficient bridges. Adding 17,000 pounds to our trucks will not make our bridges safer in Pennsylvania, or in Ohio, or in the hills of Tennessee, or on a winter road in Minnesota.”
Barletta and Costello presented a bipartisan amendment commissioning a three-year study to examine the potential costs and changes to the national transportation system incurred by increasing truck sizes and weights. The amendment was supported by numerous safety and law enforcement groups, including Advocates for Highway Safety, the National Troopers Coalition, the National Sheriffs’ Association, and the National Association of Police Organizations.
The amendment passed with a final committee vote of 33-22 and it is now part of H.R. 7.
“The passage of this amendment is a victory for all motorists and local governments,” Barletta said.
It’s true that many nations permit higher weights than the U.S. currently allows. Australia is famous for its road trains that can legally be up to 175.5 feet long and weigh up to 126 tons. However, it’s also true that these countries laid the groundwork and ground rules for heavy trucks, allowing their citizens to enjoy the benefits while avoiding some of the costs. But even in some of these countries, there is strong opposition to the next generation of heavy haulers, the Megacabs.
American truck drivers are among the best in the world but even they can’t overcome the laws of physics. 17,000 pounds is 8.5 tons of extra mass and extra inertia. If we are going to ask drivers to adapt, our lawmakers can’t just say “Okay, gang, load ‘em up!” Drivers need to know that the rigs they drive and the roads they travel are up to the extra weight and length the truckers have to handle.