The House of Representatives last night rejected an amendment to a six-year, $325 billion federal transport spending bill that would have allowed heavier tractor-trailers to operate on the national highway system, potentially dealing a multiyear blow to efforts to raise the national weight limit on trucks for the first time since 1982.
House lawmakers decided not to include legislation introduced earlier this year by Rep. Reid J. Ribble (R-Wis.) to increase the gross vehicle weight of a heavy-duty truck to 91,000 pounds from 80,000 pounds as long as the trucks were equipped with a sixth axle. Proponents said the extra axle maintains the current weight per tire as well as the current braking capacity, which means stopping distances would remain the same. Heavier trucks with the additional axle would also comply with federal bridge-safety specifications, supporters of the measure contend.
Currently, only six states allow six-axle trucks with a gross vehicle weight—the combined weight of tractor, trailer, and cargo—of more than 80,000 pounds on their portions of the 160,000-mile national highway network, which includes the 46,000-mile Interstate Highway System.
The Ribble bill was one of 270 amendments the House will consider before a floor vote, either late tomorrow or Friday, on the full package. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved the legislation in late October. The Senate passed its version of federal transport spending legislation in July.
In a statement today, John Runyan, executive director of the Coalition for Transportation Productivity (CTP), a group of 200 shippers, manufacturers, and associations that support higher truck weight limits, blamed the rail industry—which has long opposed any increase in truck weight limits—for blocking "truck productivity at any cost." Runyan said Congress was "confronted with an astounding amount of misinformation" about the Ribble bill. CTP would continue to explore ways to "safely improve truck productivity, because the facts are on our side," Runyan said.
The Association of American Railroads (AAR) declined comment on the House action. In a statement issued yesterday, AAR warned that a 14-percent increase in truck weight would add the equivalent of two large SUVs to every truck, further damage the nation's infrastructure, and put an added burden on taxpayers, who fund the national highway system through motor-fuel excise taxes. Bigger trucks with more loads would also increase fuel consumption, pollute the air, and divert more freight to already-gridlocked highways, AAR said
In June, the Department of Transportation advised Congress that no change should be made to current truck-size and -weight laws, because the agency lacked the data needed to make accurate assessments of the impact of any adjustments to highway safety. Also in June, DOT's Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) subagency issued a congressionally mandated study concluding that widespread utilization of six-axle trucks with a 91,000-pound gross vehicle weight would reduce vehicle miles travelled and total logistics costs, but that the benefits of both would be temporary. The study estimated a $5.6 billion reduction in total logistics costs due to enhanced productivity from the bigger trailers.
The study showed that 6-axle and 5-axle heavy trucks essentially displayed the same stability and control. It also found that truck configurations of more than 80,000 pounds had 18 percent more brake violations than trucks weighing less than 80,000 pounds. FHWA emphasized that it could not complete a "meaningful analysis" linking truck weight and violation rates because vehicle weight is not uniformly reported by safety inspectors. The subagency added that vehicle weight was not a strong overall factor in predicting the probability of a violation.
The FHWA study sidestepped what is perhaps the core issue in the debate, namely: Do the estimated positive impacts of a change in truck size and weight limits outweigh the estimated negative impacts?