What would happen if the nation went to a 97,000 pound gross vehicle weight limit on its interstate highways?
MillerCoors, the giant Chicago-based brewer, estimates it could cut by 25 percent the number of trucks it deploys each week to move products from its eight breweries to its six distribution centers. That would translate into 1.15 million fewer vehicle miles traveled each week, the company said. Based on a diesel fuel price of $4.50 a gallon, Miller estimates it could cut its weekly fuel bill by nearly $181,000 and reduce weekly carbon emissions by more than 4.5 million pounds.
Kraft Foods, the snack foods behemoth based in Northfield, Ill., says that, in a typical year, it would be able to move the same product with 66,000 fewer loads, resulting in a 33 million drop in vehicle miles driven, a savings of 6.6 million gallons of diesel fuel, and a 73,000-ton reduction in Kraft's carbon emissions.
Campbell Soup Co., the iconic Camden, N.J.-based canned goods producer, said it could cut its annual loads by 41,000, reducing vehicle miles driven by 23 million, saving nearly 4 million gallons of fuel, and eliminating about 39,000 tons of carbon from the atmosphere.
International Paper Co., the Memphis, Tenn.-based paper products titan, said it would carry the same amount of tonnage per year on 68,000 fewer truckloads, achieve a 27-percent annual productivity gain per truck, and shave up to 20 percent a year from its truck freight bill.
All compelling numbers, to be sure. For now, however, it is just data on fact sheets. Arguably the best shot to date to increase both the weight and size limits for big trucks plying the nation's highways has vanished into the legislative ether, helped into oblivion by a trade group whose members move these companies' goods for a living.
For shippers that have long fought to effect what would have been the first legislative change to truck weights and size limits in 30 years, it was a bitter and expensive blow. By one estimate, though impossible to quantify, upping the per-vehicle weight limit to 97,000 pounds from 80,000 pounds would have yielded shippers between $32 billion and $37 billion a year in cost savings and productivity improvements.
In early February, Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.), chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, personally inserted language in a first draft of federal transport reauthorization legislation that would have allowed states to raise the weight limit for fully loaded trucks traveling on their portion of the interstate highway system. The vehicles would have to be equipped with a sixth axle to improve braking and to better distribute the load's weight in order to minimize road wear. Currently, six states—five of them located in New England—allow the heavier vehicles on their interstate highways.
The language would also have allowed the nationwide use of twin trailers each with 33-foot lengths, and would have permitted the deployment of triple-trailers in states that currently don't have them. The longer doubles are allowed in 22 states, and the triples in 16 states.
Shipper and business groups that have tried unsuccessfully for years to convince Congress to raise maximum gross vehicle weights were thrilled by the news. Unlike other bills that have been introduced only to quickly wither on the legislative vine, the initiative was being pushed by the head of the House committee that oversees transport programs, and it was included in the multiyear highway bill rather than standing legislatively naked on its own.
However, even this version was not to be. Almost immediately, and expectedly, the Association of American Railroads (AAR) and the association representing owner-operator drivers came out in opposition. The railroads argued that heavier and longer trucks would jeopardize public safety and cause road damage that would put taxpayers on the hook for repairs.
The owner-operators group maintained that the heavier trucks would worsen an already-deteriorating infrastructure, and that longer trucks would put drivers and motorists at risk because of their limited maneuverability. The group also said there was no evidence that allowing bigger trucks on the highways would lead to an overall reduction in rigs and trailers.
Supporters of the Mica language knew the tide had turned against them when the full committee then called for a three-year feasibility study by the Transportation Research Board into the issue. But the death knell came on Feb. 13 from an unexpected source, when the American Trucking Associations (ATA) and the AAR penned an extraordinary joint letter calling on House members to move forward on a highway bill without the controversial language.
ATA Chairman Bill Graves made it plain in the letter that the group was urging the abandonment of the provision in order to maintain harmony among the many players with much at stake in the transport reauthorization process.
"What this agreement allows us to do is take one potentially controversial issue off the table in the interest of moving the legislation, which is nearly 30 months overdue, forward," the joint letter said.
As early winter turns into late spring, it is clear ATA's position hasn't changed. "Is it an important issue? Yes. Can it be the only issue? Unfortunately, no," Boyd Stephenson, ATA's manager for safety and security operations, said May 3 at an international trade conference in Norfolk.
Shippers' groups have come to realize what they probably already suspected: that the trucking industry as a whole pays lip service to the issue, even though a honcho like David S. Congdon, president and CEO of Thomasville, N.C.-based less-than-truckload carrier Old Dominion Freight Line Inc., has gone on record saying an increase in size and weight limits would represent a "quantum leap" in supply chain productivity.
For now, and perhaps for the foreseeable future, U.S. shippers will have to be content with the status quo, even though their two border partners, Mexico and Canada, have weight limits of 106,000 and 95,000 pounds, respectively. They are also left to ponder what remedies will be available to deal with the consequences of a doubling or tripling of U.S. truck volumes by 2025 on an infrastructure where truck traffic is already growing 11 times faster than road capacity.
John Runyan, executive director of the Coalition for Transportation Productivity, which has lobbied extensively to increase truck size and weight limits, said the recent legislative setbacks are temporary and the joint ATA-AAR letter didn't make anything better or worse for the group's members.
Runyan said, however, that he would have advised ATA officials not to sign the letter.
"The days of a carrier group speaking on behalf of American shippers are over," he said. "They simply may not be aware of that yet."