The Senate Appropriations Committee today approved a fiscal-year 2016 funding bill for the Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development that includes an amendment requiring states to allow longer twin trailers on the national highway system.
The $55.6 billion bill will now head to the Senate, where it will be taken up toward the end of the year as part of omnibus legislation, according to a source close to the situation. The House has already approved its FY 2016 funding bill that includes the controversial amendment, which would allow 33-foot twin trailers across the entire national highway network, including the 41,000-mile Interstate Highway System, for the first time in 33 years. The current cap is at 28 feet per trailer, though 18 states allow larger equipment on their portions of the network.
The amendment, offered by Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., passed by a 16-14 vote, mostly along party lines. One notable exception was Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., the committee chairman, who voted against it. Mississippi does not allow the larger trailers on its roads, and yesterday the state's transportation commission adopted a resolution opposing the Senate measure. The committee defeated a counter-amendment offered by Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and Tom Udall, D-N.M., which would have allowed DOT to conduct a rulemaking into the effect of the larger tractor-trailers on highway safety and road infrastructure.
The appropriations bill passed the committee by a 20-10 margin. It appropriates $17.7 billion in discretionary spending for DOT, including $572 million for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), a DOT subagency that oversees truck and bus safety. The bill requires DOT to complete its final rule requiring the use of electronic logging devices and its proposed rule governing the use of truck speed limiters. The bill also continues to suspend the reimplementation of the FMCSA's driver "restart" provisions contained in its hours-of-service regulations that force drivers off the road between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. over two consecutive days. FMCSA will conduct further studies to determine the effects of sidelining truck drivers during less-congested intervals and instead putting them on the road during morning rush-hour traffic along with millions of motorists.
The passage of the twin-trailer amendment is a victory for a coalition of less-than-truckload (LTL) carriers, shippers, and business trade groups, companies like Amazon.com, and the American Trucking Associations (ATA). They argued the provision would not increase tractor-trailer weight, would improve vehicle performance because of the stability of longer trailer wheelbases, and would dramatically boost fleet productivity by maximizing trailer space utilization.
By adding 10 feet of trailer cube to each trip, carriers can transport more cargo with the same number of trucks, in fewer trips, they maintain. The increased cubic capacity will primarily benefit LTL carriers because they operate most of the twin trailers; it will also benefit e-tailers such as Amazon that ship massive quantities of lightweight merchandise, which usually cubes out long before it weighs out.
Conversely, it is a defeat for highway-safety advocacy groups, the Teamsters union, and a large swath of the truckload-carrier industry. Safety groups and the Teamsters said the nation's highway network, especially its merge lanes and on-off ramps, is not designed to accommodate vehicles that, if the provision becomes law, would measure 84 feet in length.
Heads of 16 truckload carriers had asked lawmakers to vote against the provision, saying it jeopardizes highway safety and undermines the ability of smaller carriers to compete.
In a statement, Jackie Gillan, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, called the appropriations bill a "lethal assault on public safety" by special trucking interests, adding that it "completely disregards the existing and growing carnage on our highways caused by oversized trucks." Gillan called on President Obama to veto the transport appropriations bill if it contains this and other "antisafety measures."
The Obama administration does not favor increasing truck sizes or weight; a DOT study released earlier this month said Congress should keep current limits in place because there is insufficient data to determine the effect of those changes on the national system.
Federal law sets an 80,000-lb. gross vehicle weight limit—tractor, trailer, and freight—on trucks operating on the national network. A handful of states in New England and the Northeast allow trucks weighing up to 97,000 pounds to operate on their portions of the network. One of those states is Maine, whose senior senator, Republican Susan Collins, spearheaded that drive. Collins chairs the Appropriations Committee's transportation, housing, and urban development subcommittee, the subcommittee that drafted the bill passed by the Appropriations Committee today.
The ATA, for its part, issued a statement hailing the committee's vote. However, the statement made no mention of the passage of the twin-trailer amendment. The truckload carriers that oppose the language constitute some of the group's most influential members.