The Senate has voted to instruct its conferees about to negotiate a new federal transport-spending bill with their House counterparts not to include language requiring all states to allow twin trailers each measuring 33 feet in length on the nation's federal-aid highways.
The motion, which passed late Wednesday by a 56-31 margin, would keep twin-trailer lengths capped at 28 feet until the Department of Transportation can determine whether trucks with the longer trailers are safe to operate on the 160,000-mile National Highway System. Earlier this year, DOT recommended that truck size and weight limits be maintained, saying it didn't have enough data to determine whether any change should be made at that time.
The motion is not binding on the conferees, who are scheduled to meet this coming week to hash out a compromise version of federal transport-spending legislation. The motion was spearheaded by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.)
The House and Senate Appropriations Committees in June approved language in their versions of DOT's fiscal year 2016 appropriations legislation that would allow the longer tractor-trailers to operate. Currently, 11 states allow longer trailer variations on their segments of the national network. The federal limit has remained at 28 feet per trailer since 1982.
Jackie Gillan, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a group that opposes the measure, said in an e-mail that the Senate's motion was designed to prevent similar language from being attached to the federal transport-spending bill through "some back-door maneuver." The motion will hopefully persuade House-Senate conferees on the DOT appropriations bills to drop the provision during their negotiations, Gillan added. Supporters of the measure argue that the longer combination vehicles will not increase the weight of a truck, and will improve highway safety by allowing more cargo to be shipped on each vehicle, thus taking more of them off the road. They maintain that the longer wheelbases on the trailers will improve handling, braking, and overall performance. Critics maintain that adding 10 feet to the length of each rig would make it more difficult for truck drivers to maneuver onto merge lanes and over on- and off-ramps. They also contend that the language was not subject to legislative review or negotiations.
Last week, the House passed a six-year, $325 billion transport spending bill. House lawmakers dropped a provision that would have raised the limit of a tractor-trailer's gross vehicle weight to 91,000 pounds from the 80,000-pound ceiling in effect since 1982, as long as the rig was equipped with a sixth axle for improved stability. Gross vehicle weight is the combined weight of a tractor, trailer, and cargo.
The Senate passed its own version in July. Congress is facing a Nov. 20 expiration date of the most recent extension on the transport funding law. However, legislation was introduced today in the House that would extend current funding until Dec. 4 to give conferees more time to work out a compromise.
The bill produced by the conferees would be returned to both chambers for votes. Once the bill passes the House and Senate, it will be sent to President Obama's desk to be signed into law.