The Association of American Railroads (AAR) said it will fight efforts in Congress requiring states to allow longer twin-trailers on the National Highway System, which includes the interstate network, a major shift in AAR policy that could dim the chances of any change in the 36-year-old law.
The policy change was outlined in a communiqué on the AAR web site. In it, the group said any change to current law that limits the length of each trailer to 28 feet would "lead to more truck freight, which would further stress the nation's deteriorating roads and bridges." It would also result in an increase in hefty road-maintenance costs borne by taxpayers, AAR said. Twenty states allow longer trucks on their roads.
In the past, AAR has been indifferent to proposals to increase the length of each trailer to 33 feet, choosing instead to reserve its lobbying strength against efforts to raise truck gross vehicle weight limits to either 97,000 or 91,000 pounds from the current 80,000-pound threshold. Gross vehicle weight is the combined weight of a tractor, trailer, and the cargo.
The harder line on truck size is a new shift, according to Jessica Kahanek, an AAR spokeswoman. Kahanek did not respond to a subsequent request for comment on what prompted the AAR's change in position.
AAR, which represents U.S. railroads, has long been recognized as one of Washington's most formidable lobbying groups. It became even more influential in 2009, after Berkshire Hathaway Inc. acquired the remaining stake in Fort Worth, Texas-based BNSF Railway that Berkshire didn't already control. The acquisition brought Berkshire Chairman Warren E. Buffett, one of the nation's most visible and respected executives, fully into the rail industry fold.
For years, shipper groups and parcel and less-than-truckload carriers have battled safety advocates, independent truck owner-operators, and, to a lesser extent, the large fleets represented by the American Trucking Associations (ATA) over the proposed truck size change. Supporters have said longer trailers would boost truck efficiency and productivity by adding 16 percent of cubic capacity to each run without any increase in truck weight. The measure would be critical in meeting the expected increase in demand for freight hauling, especially as e-commerce means more goods are to be delivered, supporters have said.
Opponents have said the extended trailers pose a safety risk because the national highway system's merge lanes and on-off ramps were not designed to accommodate tractors carrying twin-trailers longer than 28 feet each. Supporters said the longer trailers would be equipped with extended wheelbases that allow for more stable handling than is offered by rigs hauling 28-foot equipment.
John Cutler, the Washington-based general counsel of the NASSTRAC shipper group, waxed optimistic at the group's 2017 conference about passage of so-called twin-33 legislation, citing a renewed pro-business environment under the Trump administration and the defeat or retirement of various lawmakers who opposed the initiative. At the group's 2018 annual conference, held earlier this week in Orlando, Cutler was decidedly less bullish. As NASSTRAC's counsel for 20 years, Cutler is very familiar with the AAR's lobbying influence and aware of the significance of the group's policy shift.
"It's going to be a hard slog," he said, referring to efforts to get a measure enacted.
The closest the measure came to enactment was in the run-up to the 2015 federal-spending law known as the FAST Act. The House killed the measure, however.