In the nation's capital, legislation is what lawmakers do. As one veteran and somewhat jaded Washington lobbyist once remarked, "To a politician, introducing legislation is like breathing."
If industry comments greeting the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's five-year, $260 billion bill to fund the federal highway, transit, and safety programs is any indication, someone on Capitol Hill has taken a very deep breath.
The legislation, unveiled late Tuesday, has been trumpeted by Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.), the committee chairman, as the largest transportation reform bill since Congress created the Interstate Highway System mid-way through the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower. For freight interests that have clamored for more congressional recognition of freight's role in driving the U.S. and global economies, the bill goes a long way toward meeting that objective.
The bill, the American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act, proposes the first major federal change to truck size and weight limits since the early 1980s. It also restores to the states the authority to regulate truck sizes and weights, which was stripped from them in 1991.
The bill gives states the power to allow single-trailer trucks with gross vehicle weights of up to 97,000 pounds to operate on their portion of the nation's interstate highway system. The current federal weight limit is set at 80,000 pounds, though six states—Maine, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island—allow six-axle trucks weighing up to 97,000 pounds to travel on their interstate highways. About 40 states allow vehicles weighing more than 80,000 pounds to operate on state roads.
The legislation would require the heavier trucks to be equipped with a sixth axle to maintain braking and handling characteristics at the higher weights. In addition, participating states would have the authority to exclude heavier trucks from operating on any route or bridge.
The bill also permits 33-foot trailers to be operated in doubles formation, up from the current maximum of 28 feet per trailer operating as a tandem. In addition, it would allow truckers to operate nationwide with triple-trailers up to 120 feet long.
There are potential roadblocks to moving the House bill forward. The bill will be debated on Thursday, with possible amendments to be introduced and addressed. It then must be reconciled with the version that emerges from the Senate, a process expected to be politically bruising. The traditional funding mechanism, the fuel tax on cars and trucks, will not be sufficient to pay for the entire program. What is expected to be a $50 billion shortfall will likely need to be made up from funds transferred from the general treasury.
Still, advocates say there is hope that after eight short-term extensions since the last transport law expired in September 2009, a multiyear reauthorization bill could go to President Obama's desk for signature during 2012. However, it is unlikely that the process could move swiftly enough to avoid a ninth extension after the current one expires on March 31.
A focus on freight
Many shipper and carrier interests have long believed the increased use of longer and heavier vehicles will be the primary, if not the only, solution to a looming capacity crunch, escalating fuel prices, and greenhouse gas emissions. For them, the bill was manna from heaven.
The Coalition for Transportation Productivity, a group of 200 shippers and associations, said the measure will help truckers meet the demands of the supply chain while reducing the number of truckloads, amount of diesel fuel, and number of vehicle miles necessary to do the job.
"Truck capacity has dropped by 16 percent since the recession started, and the 30-year-old federal vehicle weight limit compounds the problem by forcing many trucks to travel when they are only partially full," said John Runyan, CTP's executive director, in a statement.
CleanerSaferTrucking Inc., a coalition of truckers, shippers, and equipment manufacturers, said in a statement that the bill will increase truck productivity and lead to a "safer, more viable trucking industry, utilizing better equipment and providing better, more sustainable jobs, while reducing highway congestion."
The American Trucking Associations and the American Association of Port Authorities also endorsed the legislation.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which, with 3 million members, is seen as an accurate barometer of multi-industry consensus, applauded the bill's introduction. "It reflects the recognition of the federal role in the transportation system," said Janet Kavinoky, who heads the chamber's transportation infrastructure practice.
Kavinoky added that the bill underscores the need to focus on freight and its importance in keeping the U.S. economy competitive.
Critics take aim
Not all of the reaction was positive. The Association of American Railroads (AAR), the Teamsters union, and the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA) attacked the bill, saying it will create undue safety risk, further damage the nation's deteriorating infrastructure, and put additional financial burdens on taxpayers, and will not create jobs as the bill's sponsors contend.
The AAR, which has for years fought federal efforts to raise truck size and weight limits, said the operator of a typical 97,000-pound, six-axle truck pays only half of the cost of repairing road damage caused by its use. Taxpayers pick up the rest of the tab, the AAR said.
"Americans don't want 97,000 pounds or huge multi-trailers up to 120 feet long on our nation's highways," said Edward R. Hamberger, AAR's president and CEO, in a statement.
OOIDA, which represent mostly fleets of one to five trucks, argued that longer and heavier vehicles are harder to maneuver and will put additional stress on roads and bridges that are designed to accommodate weights no greater than 80,000 pounds. OOIDA said an increase in size and weight limits has never resulted in a reduction in truck traffic.
OOIDA warned the legislation would lead to tax increases and new toll levies because the cost of potentially massive road and bridge damage would far exceed the inflow of user fees paid by the companies that would benefit from the proposed increase in size and weight limits.