February 21, 2012
Raising truck weight limits could help solve the capacity crunch and conserve fuel to boot. Too bad we can't sell Congress on the idea.
In June 2011, I wrote a column ("The 17,000-pound solution") endorsing proposed legislation that would allow states to raise weight limits for trucks traveling on their interstate highways. I noted at the time that this proposal appeared to have a lot of upsides and virtually no downside. Raising the weight limit would allow companies to use fewer trucks to haul the same amount of freight, adding much-needed capacity at a time when the supply of drivers and rigs was shrinking. It would have the added benefits of conserving diesel fuel and cutting carbon emissions as well as reducing wear and tear on the roads. And it could be done in a way that would not compromise safety.Although that particular piece of legislation remains stuck in limbo, its backers were heartened in January of this year when John Mica, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, unveiled a long-awaited transportation spending bill, the American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act. Among other provisions, the bill authorized the states to raise truck weight limits on their portion of the interstate highway system to 97,000 pounds from 80,000 pounds, as long as each vehicle was equipped with a sixth axle to maintain braking and handling stability at the higher weights.
It was a short-lived celebration, however. Three days later, the full committee voted to drop this provision from the bill. As a compromise, it directed the Transportation Research Board to conduct a three-year feasibility study into the size and weight issue.
That might seem reasonable until you consider that there have been dozens of studies on this subject along with several pilot projects. Vermont and New Hampshire, for example, already allow six-axle trucks weighing up to 97,000 pounds on their portions of the interstate highway system—apparently without negative effects. Even the House committee studied it 10 years ago, with positive conclusions. What we don't need is another study. What more can we possibly learn?
This is not a new battle. Truck weight reform has come up a number of times over the past 20 years, and each time, the railroads and other opponents have come out swinging. This latest case has been no exception, and once again, its opponents seem to have prevailed. Ironically, many of their objections center on infrastructure and safety, despite evidence suggesting that raising truck weight limits would actually have a beneficial effect on both counts.
As for infrastructure, a DOT study found little evidence that heavier trucks would lead to additional road damage. In fact, it projected that raising weight limits would save $2.4 billion in pavement restoration costs over 20 years' time because it would cut down on the number of trucks needed to move a given amount of freight. And there have been similar findings regarding safety. A 2009 Wisconsin study concluded that if heavier six-axle trucks had been in use in that state in 2006, there would have been 90 fewer truck accidents.
On top of that, research has shown that raising truck weight limits would have a positive effect on the environment. According to the American Transportation Research Institute, six-axle trucks carrying 97,000 pounds get 17 more ton-miles per gallon than an 80,000-pound truck with five axles. A DOT study estimated that the higher limits would save 2 billion gallons of fuel per year and result in a 19-percent drop in emissions and fuel consumption per ton-mile.
Despite the many arguments in its favor, in the end, the provision fell victim to political expediency. Dropping the truck weight provision will likely enhance the funding bill's chances of passage—and it's a bill we desperately need. But to me, this is just another example of a myopic Congress yielding to lobbying pressures and discouraging innovation and creativity in our industry.