February 14, 2012

Cut down to size: push to raise truck size, weight limits falls victim to political realities

Proposal seen as impediment to passage of highway funding bill.

By Mark B. Solomon

It had been portrayed as a quantum leap forward in helping shippers gain badly needed motor carrier capacity. Now, it's basically been consigned to the ash heap of Capitol Hill.

In a shocking display of unity, the Association of American Railroads (AAR) and the American Trucking Associations (ATA) sent a joint letter Thursday night to members of the House of Representatives asking lawmakers to oppose any attempts to reinstate language to increase the size and weight of vehicles operating on the nation's interstate highways when a multiyear transportation funding bill is debated on the House floor in coming days.

Given that companion legislation in the Senate does not include any such language, the action by the two main surface transportation trade groups effectively ends nascent efforts to effect the most sweeping change in vehicle size and weight limits in three decades. It is a bitter blow to shippers who hoped the provision would make their operations more productive and increase motor carrier capacity during a cycle when the supply of available drivers and rigs is shrinking. It also deals a setback to those who contended that raising vehicle and weight size limits would enable carriers to operate more efficiently with less equipment, thus conserving diesel fuel and cutting carbon emissions.

Earlier this month, Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, introduced legislation calling for a five-year, $260 billion reauthorization of the nation's surface transportation programs. Included in the proposal was a provision to allow single-trailer vehicles with a gross vehicle weight of up to 97,000 pounds to operate on the nation's interstate highways, as long as each vehicle was equipped with a sixth axle to maintain braking and handling stability at the higher weights.

The proposal also called for greater use of triple-trailers and for an increase in the length of double-trailers to 33 feet from 28 feet.

The language hit a huge pothole when the full committee approved the legislation but stipulated that the Transportation Research Board (TRB) conduct a three-year feasibility study into the size and weight issue. The TRB, a group leavened by transportation engineers and academics, never moves with all deliberate speed on anything. Supporters of the language knew that unless an amendment was offered up during debate by the full House, it was effectively a goner.

The last nail was struck by AAR and ATA, which urged lawmakers to table any prospective amendments in the interest of moving a comprehensive bill through the legislative process.

Janet F. Kavinoky, who runs the transportation infrastructure programs for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, publicly echoed the private sentiments of many when she pronounced the provision "dead" following release of the AAR-ATA letter.

A bow to political realities

Essentially, the language fell victim to political expediency. Virtually everyone who moves freight for a living wants Congress to pass legislation to fund federal transport programs for a multiyear period. This is especially true in an election year, when transport funding could translate into jobs for millions of unemployed—and voting—Americans.

The last multiyear transport law expired in September 2009. Since then, transportation programs have been living on a series of short-term extensions, with billions of dollars extracted from the general treasury to pay for projects that cannot be covered by the federal excise tax on motor fuels, the primary funding mechanism.

In addition, truckers and railroads have been criticized in the past for being too busy warring among themselves to present a united front before Congress on critical legislative matters. Given the railroads' staunch opposition to raising vehicle size and weight limits—not to mention the AAR's effective lobbying skills—trucking interests decided that the issue was worth jettisoning in favor of moving a reauthorization bill forward.

A trucking industry source who supported the language said its backers are willing to let the language die for the larger objective of ending the stalemate over funding. "There are other productivity provisions in the bill that the railroads and their front groups might have attacked, so such an agreement was helpful to trucking while the railroads got nothing additional," the source said.

The source added that "it is time for all transportation sectors to pull together in support of the bill."

The ATA said in a statement that the bill contains enough vehicle-friendly provisions—such as the creation of a national freight policy, the establishment of a drug and alcohol testing clearinghouse, and a focus on using the proceeds from diesel fuel taxes exclusively for highway uses—to like without the higher vehicle size and weight limits.

More articles by Mark B. Solomon

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