May 3, 2017
Column | fastlane

Will 33-foot twins be born this year?

Just two years after it was shot down by Congress, legislation to allow the use of 33-foot twin trailers on the nation's highways may finally see the light of day.

By Clifford F. Lynch

Just two years after it was shot down by Congress, legislation to allow the use of 33-foot twin trailers (T-33s) on the nation's highways may finally see the light of day. In 2015, a proposal to extend the length limit on twin-trailers to 33 feet from the current 28-foot maximum gained some traction on Capitol Hill. But it wasn't enough. The House killed the proposal before passing a five-year federal transport funding bill in late 2015.

That was hardly the first go-round on the issue. For years, less-than-truckload (LTL) and parcel carriers have been pushing for legislation to extend the current limit, which has been in place since 1982. The increase in trailer length would add 18 percent of cubic capacity to each truck run. Backers say the move would boost productivity and reduce the number of trucks on the road because each trailer could haul more goods.

Opponents, which include safety advocates, organized labor, rails, and even other members of the trucking industry, say those productivity gains would come at too high a cost, causing disruption to the marketplace and creating safety risks. For instance, the Truckload Carriers Association—whose members use 53-foot trailers, not twins—has long opposed raising the length limit, citing competitive disadvantage, safety concerns, issues with TOFC (trailer-on-flatcar) equipment designed for 53- and 28-foot containers, and other concerns. (Frankly, these and their other arguments seem weak.)

But it appears the T-33's day has finally come. What's different this time around? To begin with, we have a new administration and a new Congress, both with a decidedly anti-regulatory bias. More importantly, perhaps, there's new lobbying muscle in town, with FedEx chairman Fred Smith leading the charge.

In January, FedEx, joined by UPS, Amazon, YRC, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, and others, formed a group called "Americans for Modern Transportation" (AMT). According to a press release issued at the time, the group was established to enhance both the safety and efficiency of the nation's transportation system and "will actively work to improve transportation infrastructure and policy to reflect, and meet, the growing needs of modern businesses and consumers." Perhaps not surprisingly, its first major initiative is to seek approval to use the longer rigs.

In March, AMT released the findings of a study it had commissioned on the feasibility and economics of using longer trailers. The report, titled "Twin 33-Foot Truck Trailers: Making U.S. Freight Transport Safer and More Efficient," found that rather than increasing safety risks, the use of higher-capacity trailers would actually improve safety while at the same time providing a number of environmental and economic benefits. In 2014 alone, the report said, "widespread adoption of the 33-foot trailers would have resulted in 3.1 billion fewer vehicle miles traveled, 4,500 fewer truck crashes, $2.6 billion saved in shipper costs, 53.2 million hours saved due to less congestion, 255 million fewer gallons of fuel, and 2.9 million fewer tons of CO2}emissions." The 19-page report, which went on to explain how researchers reached these conclusions, addresses specifically—and I think, convincingly—each of the concerns of the TCA.

If one takes this report at face value—and so far, there seems to be no reason not to—it would be difficult for legislators to ignore the potential benefits of using T-33s. No doubt, there will be lengthy partisan debates. But at this point, I think the prospects of passage look good. Based on the changing political climate in Washington and the AMT's lobbying power, my prediction is that the proposal will be one of the few things approved during this session of Congress.

About the Author

Clifford F. Lynch
Columnist
Clifford F. Lynch is principal of C.F. Lynch & Associates, a provider of logistics management advisory services, and author of Logistics Outsourcing – A Management Guide and co-author of The Role of Transportation in the Supply Chain. He can be reached at cliff@cflynch.com.

More articles by Clifford F. Lynch

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