Sen. Frank Lautenberg, the long-time New Jersey senator whose advocacy of highway safety often put him at odds with commercial interests, died Monday morning at a New York hospital of complications from viral pneumonia. He was 89.
Lautenberg, a Democrat, had announced in mid-February he would not seek a sixth term in the Senate. In what became one of his last official acts, Lautenberg in early May 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 bill, the Safe Highways and Infrastructure Preservation Act of 2013 (SHIPA), would 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.
The current limit of 80,000 pounds of gross vehicle weight (rig, trailer, and freight) only applies to the interstate system. All but six states and the District of Columbia allow for heavier trucks on their NHS-designated roads.
By contrast, only six states allow vehicles above the weight threshold to operate on their portion of the interstate system. Truck weight limits have remained the same since 1982.
"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," Lautenberg said in a statement at the time he re-introduced the bill. He had tried to move this measure through Congress before but with no success.
Lautenberg, who represented a small but densely populated state, had fought for decades with private industry over the issue of bigger trucks. He authored a 1991 bill banning triple-trailers from operating in most states.
Shippers and truckers have long 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. David S. Congdon, president and CEO of Thomasville, N.C.-based Old Dominion Freight Line Inc. has said publicly that increases in truck weights would represent a quantum leap in supply chain productivity.
In a statement, the Association of American Railroads (AAR) hailed Lautenberg as a "true leader" on rail transport issues. AAR President and CEO Edward R. Hamberger said Lautenberg "supported legislative and regulatory initiatives that ensure private freight rail investments continue to help spur rail-intermodal growth, taking trucks off our nation's already overburdened highways, and lowering the nation's greenhouse gas emissions."
The American Trucking Associations (ATA), which represents the nation's largest truckers, had no public comment at press time.
Lautenberg was the last remaining World War II veteran serving in the Senate. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, will appoint a temporary replacement and has called for an October special election.
Editor's Note: The original version of this article incorrectly stated that Christie would appoint a successor, who would serve for the remainder of Lautenberg's term.