He may be retiring when his current term expires, but Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) will not leave without firing a parting shot at his trucker and shipper nemeses.
The 89-year-old Lautenberg&mdahs;who announced in February he would not seek re-election once his term is up in November 2014—yesterday re-introduced legislation to extend the current truck weight limits to the entire 220,000-mile National Highway System (NHS), which includes the 44,000-mile interstate system. The current limits of 80,000 pounds of gross vehicle weight (rig, trailer, and freight) only apply on the interstate system. All but six states and the District of Columbia allow for heavier trucks on their NHS-designated roads.
The bill, the "Safe Highways and Infrastructure Preservation Act of 2013" (SHIPA), would also cap the length of trailers operating on the NHS to 53 feet and expand the current freeze on triple-trailer operations on interstates to the NHS as well. In addition, it would close loopholes that allow for the operation of overweight trucks and would establish an enforcement program to ensure accountability, according to Lautenberg.
"Closing the loophole that keeps these long, overweight trucks on our National Highway System will protect families and preserve our nation's infrastructure," Lautenberg said in a statement announcing the legislation. "Trucks play a critical role in our nation's economy, but they also share the roads with our families, so we must do everything we can to make our nation's highways safer and prevent tragic accidents."
The bill is co-sponsored by Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.).
Lautenberg has introduced this legislation several times before, but it has never gone far. The senator, representing a relatively small state with a dense population, has long been at odds with private industry over the issue of bigger trucks. He authored a 1991 bill banning triple-trailers from operating in most states.
Last year, Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.) tried to include language allowing for heavier and longer trucks on the interstates in legislation reauthorizing federal highway and transit funding. His efforts failed, however. 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. The current size and weight limits on trucks travelling the interstates haven't changed since 1982.
The American Trucking Associations, which represents the nation's largest trucking companies, issued a statement saying the Lautenberg bill would "severely restrict states' ability to decide for themselves how best to deal with their congestion and goods movement issues at a time when they should be granted more flexibility, not less."
The Coalition for Transportation Productivity (CTP), a group of about 200 shippers and affiliates lobbying for deployment of bigger trucks, said the House and Senate bills are part of an effort by the nation's railroads to stifle truck competition by keeping bigger vehicles off the road. "This railroad-backed coalition is waging a war on truck productivity that is predicated on fear rather than on facts," said John Runyan, CTP's executive director, in a statement yesterday.
"We certainly support efforts being made by Senator Lautenberg and other lawmakers seeking to maintain federal truck size and weight limits on our nation's already overburdened highways" said Holly Arthur, spokeswoman for the Association of American Railroads. Arthur added that the two-year study will "ultimately show how bigger, heavier trucks adversely impact our infrastructure and economy."
In an e-mail today to DC Velocity, Runyan said the shipper community is "waking and up and uniting like never before" around the issue. "The battle is just getting started," he added.
Shippers have argued that heavier and longer vehicles would enable them to move the same amount of goods with fewer loads, resulting in fewer vehicle-miles driven and reductions in fuel consumption and carbon emissions.
However, at last month's NASSTRAC (National Shippers Strategic Transportation Council) annual conference and expo in Orlando, Fla., the subject didn't get much public visibility. One of the few references to the issue came from the group's Washington counsel, John Cutler, who noted in a speech that Lautenberg's impending retirement might herald a new day for advocates pushing for the use of bigger trucks.
In the statement, Lautenberg cited two recent independent polls showing that more than 72 percent of Americans oppose heavier trucks on the roads and that 85 percent of Americans do not want to pay for the increased damage done by heavier trucks. CTP said the poll asked "biased questions" and didn't take into consideration that all of the heavier trucks would be required to have a sixth axle to increase stability and braking power.