The chairman, president, and CEO of Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF) said on Wednesday he would not oppose an increase in the weight and size of trucks plying the nation's interstate highways as long as the trucking industry "pays its full share" of maintaining the infrastructure that could be affected by the bigger vehicles.
Matthew K. Rose, keynoting the second day of the NASSTRAC annual conference and expo in Orlando, declined to target a number that would constitute a "full share" of trucker payments. Instead, he pointed out the wide discrepancy between a proposal by the American Trucking Associations (ATA) and one by the Association of American Railroads for how truckers should be charged for the upkeep of the roads, bridges, and tunnels that have the bigger trucks rumbling on them. The ATA recommends a user tax or fee of 6-cents-a-gallon, while the AAR suggests 26-cents-a-gallon. The yawning gap in the two very informal proposals underscores how far apart truckers and railroads are on the controversial issue.
Currently in all but six states—Maine, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island—the gross vehicle weight of a single-trailer truck operating on interstate highways has been capped at 80,000 pounds since 1982. Those six states currently allow trucks with a gross vehicle weight of 97,000 pounds to operate on their interstates, as long as the vehicles are equipped with a sixth axle to stabilize handling and braking functions at the heavier weights.
Recent efforts to increase truck weight limits have come up short. Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.) failed in his efforts to include language calling for the heavier weights in the 27-month, $109-billion surface transportation reauthorization bill that was signed into law last July. In addition, attempts by Mica to allow 33-foot trailers to operate in double formation&mdash up from the current maximum of 28 feet for each trailer operating as a tandem&mdash were defeated, as was a proposal to allow truckers to run nationwide with triple-trailers up to 120 feet long.
Instead, lawmakers mandated the Transportation Research Board (TRB), an academic and engineering group, to conduct a two-year study into the viability of vehicles operating at the higher size and weight limits. Rose told the conference the TRB's conclusions will likely be the template for what type of trucks ride the interstates for years to come.
Meanwhile the trucking industry continues to push for bigger trucks. Testifying yesterday before the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, Derek J. Leathers, president and chief operating officer of Omaha, Neb.-based truckload carrier Werner Enterprises Inc., urged Congress to lift "the most restrictive truck weight regulations of any developed country." With projected increases in freight traffic, more productive trucks will be essential to meet the nation's transportation needs, Leathers told the committee.
The rail industry, however, has long argued that motorists and taxpayers should not be forced to foot the higher bills to pay for infrastructure damage caused by bigger trucks. The railroads' angst stems from the position that they are almost completely funded with private capital that is earned in the marketplace.
"It is important that the competitive landscape for moving freight in this country not be artificially tilted towards trucks and our already congested highways and away from the rails," Rose said in prepared remarks.
Additionally many in the railroad industry say that heavier and longer trucks jeopardize highway safety. The truckers, however, contend that the railroad industry is worried less about highway safety and more about protecting their competitive position should larger trucks, which would be able to haul more freight and make themselves and shippers more productive, are allowed to hit the interstates nationwide.
Rose, for his part, distanced himself and BNSF from his industry's public awareness campaign linking bigger trucks with increased safety problems. "We are not supporting advertisements" that warn of the safety hazards of bigger trucks, Rose said in response to a question from the audience. Rose said he doesn't want to alienate truckers who comprise such a large portion of BNSF's customer base.