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Truck weight limits debated as Congress develops freight plan

Higher truck weight limits emerged as a featured topic during a congressional hearing Tuesday, Oct. 1.bridges

Charged with examining the federal role in making the U.S. transportation system more efficient and competitive for freight movement, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Panel on 21st Century Freight Transportation spent much the multi-modal session debating the Safe and Efficient Transportation Act, which would allow states to grant interstate access to six-axle trucks weighing up to 97,000 pounds. The act is supported by the Coalition for Transportation Productivity, a group of 200 large shippers.

“Allowing heavier loads to move on safer and more appropriate six-axle trucks will give states the ability to optimize road networks, while allowing trucks to incorporate safer Interstate highways into their routes,” said Tom Kadien, senior vice president of consumer packaging for International Paper. “Six-axle trucks with weights equal to or more than those allowed by SETA are in wide use by our global competitors in Canada, Europe, Asia and Australia. Heavier trucks are supported by a wide body of research from state, federal, international and academic institutions.”

Using an IP facility in Oklahoma as an example, Kadien said the higher weight limit would reduce the number of truck trips required by 20 percent—and thereby reduce the number of trucks on the highways as well.

He emphasized the issue is not about trucks trying to compete with rail, and that the IP freight carried by each mode is distinctly different. He also said shippers would “gladly” pay higher fees associated with the heavier loads.

Panel member Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, challenged the Oklahoma example specifically, citing previous testimony on the matter by representatives of the Oklahoma Department of Transportation who had urged caution in raising truck weight limits. The additional stress on already fatigued bridges was the primary concern, Nadler recalled.

Nadler also referred to a Vermont study that calculated the costs associated with maintaining a highway was 63 percent higher per mile for heavier trucks compared to the costs at current limits.

Asked by Nadler if shippers would be willing to pay proportionately higher use fees, Kadien said shippers would support paying “a fair share,” but that assessing the full amount of that increased maintenance figure would eliminate any competitive advantage for heavier trucks.

In support of higher weights, Rep. Richard L. Hanna, a New York Republican, argued that lower limits entailed more truck trips, and in turn more wear and tear on roads and bridges along with more traffic and more exhaust emissions.

“The small points of increased truck weights—the percentages, however that works out—all add to the greater good of the entire economy,” Hanna said. “We all depend on trucks. It shouldn’t fall to the individual trucker to pay the full freight of the use of the highway.”

Rep. Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma made the case that setting truck weights is a “states rights” issue. A CDL holder, Mullin said state DOTs are in the best position to know which routes can support heavier weights.

Nadler, however, rejected the notion that the federal government should be kept out of the process. “I find it very difficult to believe that these questions are primarily states issues, given that the federal government pays 90 percent of the costs of the construction of interstates, and pays a large of the cost of the maintenance,” Nadler said.

Likewise, he dismissed the results from states that already support higher truck weights. “The fact that states follow foolish policy doesn’t mean we should.”

Nadler also noted the “irony” of testifying about the important role of the federal government “in the middle of a government shutdown”—and he placed blame squarely on Republicans.

“This committee has been one of the brighter spots this Congress, working together in bipartisan manner,” he said. “But all of the work of this committee will be for nothing unless these political shenanigans stop and we get back to doing the business of the American people.”

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Kevin Jones is Senior Editor, Trucking Media, and writes from his home in Little Rock, Ark. His Fleet Street blog features whatever strikes his fancy and has at least a little connection to trucks, or drivers, or highways. Or David Allan Coe. (Google "the perfect country and western song" if you're not nearly as old as Kevin is.) You can also keep up with Kevin by following his Twitter feed (@KevinJonesCCJ) or just drop him a line: kevin.jones@randallreilly.com.