The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on February 3 approved a five-year, $260 billion bill to fund the nation's highway, transit, and safety programs, but turned back a proposal that would have made the biggest changes to commercial truck weight and size limits in 30 years.
The legislation was met with harsh words from Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who told an online publication it was the "worst transportation bill" he's seen in decades.
The bill, the American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act, was approved by a 29 to 24 vote. The vote was essentially split along party lines, with the Republican majority on the committee carrying the day. The legislation was introduced by the committee chairman, Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla). Rep. John J. Duncan (R-Tenn.) was the lone co-sponsor. The initial draft was the subject of hours of debate before it passed the committee in the wee hours of Feb. 3.
In a blow to shippers and motor carriers, the committee ordered a three-year study by the Transportation Research Board (TRB)—a body mostly consisting of consultants, academics, and engineers—into the feasibility of allowing single-trailer trucks with gross vehicle weights of up to 97,000 pounds to operate on the nation's interstate highways, as long as each truck was equipped with a sixth axle to maintain braking and handling characteristics at the higher weights.
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 on their portions of the interstate highway system. About 40 states allow vehicles weighing more than 80,000 pounds to operate on state roads.
The bill's initial draft would have also permitted 33-foot trailers to be operated in doubles formation, up from the current maximum of 28 feet for each trailer operating as a tandem. In addition, it would have allowed truckers to operate nationwide with triple-trailers up to 120 feet long.
Need for studies disputed
In a statement issued Thursday, the Coalition for Transportation Productivity (CTP), a group of 200 shippers and related groups advocating an increase in truck size and weight limits, said there is little sense in conducting another study into the safety issues surrounding truck weight reform. CTP noted that the committee asked TRB to study the same issue back in 1998 and the board endorsed the idea in a report issued four years later.
"Voluminous academic research and practical on-the-ground experience has proven that states should have the option to put more productive, six-axle trucks on interstates," said John Runyan, the coalition's executive director, in a statement.
Runyon said the increase in truck size and weight limits would 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," he said.
The American Trucking Associations, which represents the nation's major trucking companies, urged Congress to incorporate the size and weight change language in the legislation as it moves through the legislative process.
"There have already been hundreds of studies that show increasing truck productivity reduces truck miles traveled, which not only reduces accident risk, congestion, and emissions, but will also ultimately save money in reduced highway maintenance costs," said Bill Graves, the group's president and CEO, in a statement.
Victory for the rails
The language calling for the TRB study is a victory for the Association of American Railroads (AAR), the Teamsters union, and the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA), all of whom said the increase in size and weight limits would create undue safety risk, further damage the nation's deteriorating infrastructure, and put additional financial burdens on taxpayers, and would not create jobs as the bill's sponsors contend.
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 represents mostly fleets of one to five trucks, argued that longer and heavier vehicles are harder to maneuver and would put additional stress on roads and bridges 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 size and weight limit increase.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood added to the criticism, telling the online publication Politico that the measure is the "worst transportation bill I've ever seen in 35 years of public service."
LaHood, who spent 14 years in the House and six on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, also told the publication that the legislation is the "most anti-safety bill I have ever seen."
On to the House
The legislation now goes to the full House. The Senate, meanwhile, will take up separate bills from the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and the Senate Commerce Committee. The full House and Senate versions must then be reconciled by conferees from both chambers. Should conferees reconcile the bill and the full House and Senate approve the reconciled version, it will then be sent to President Obama.
In addition to calling for the safety study, the House bill contains provisions requiring that funds from user fees such as the federal fuel tax on trucks and motor vehicles be used for transportation and infrastructure projects and not be diverted to non-transportation uses.
The House bill also contains language recognizing the need to develop a national freight policy. A similar provision is contained in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee bill, which is sponsored by Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and James Inhofe (R-Okla.).
The House bill also establishes a clearinghouse for drug and alcohol testing of commercial drivers, and strengthens commercial drivers license requirements to ensure that only qualified drivers are behind the wheel.