Panel kills truck weight increase

Feb 24, 2012

An increase in federal truck size and weight limits did not survive a House committee vote in early February when members of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee voted 33 to 22 to spend more time studying the proposed limit increase.

The House highway bill would have allowed states to raise the truck weight limit on Interstate highways from 80,000 pounds to 97,000 pounds on six-axle trucks.

The bill’s amendment, brought by Reps. Lou Barletta, R-PA, and Jerry Costello, D-IL, scrapped the language approving the increase and added the addition to have the Transportation Department do a threeyear study of the impacts of a change. The study must cover safety, pavement and bridge costs, and diversion of freight from the railroads and other modes.

“We are very disappointed,” said Mary Phillips, senior vice president for legislative affairs at American Trucking Associations, which supported the increase.

While the bill is not finished, it goes to the House floor and then the Senate, the weight provision was considered to be the trucking industry’s best opportunity for the increase, but they are not ready to throw in the white towel yet.

“We’ll be back,” Phillips said.

The Coalition for Transportation Productivity (CTP), a group representing 200 shipper and carrier interests, also expressed disappointment and their resolve to continue.

“There is no need to commit further study to this truck weight proposal,” said CTP Executive Director John Runyan in a statement. “Voluminous academic research and practical on-theground experience has proven that states should have the option to put more productive, six-axle trucks on the Interstates.”

“Our effort is far from over,” he said.

The bill still contains a provision under which states could permit 126,000-pound vehicles on 25-mile segments of their Interstates.

This vote occurred during mark-up of the committee’s bill to reauthorize the federal highway program. The bill, called the American Energy & Infrastructure Jobs Act, would spend $260 billion over five years.

If a final bill is not signed by March 31, Congress will have to pass the ninth extension, since the current highway program officially expired in October 2009.

National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s (NCBA) Colin Woodall expressed support of states having the option to increase truck weights with an additional axle to increase braking power and place less total weight on each axle, making livestock transportation safer and less stressful on U.S. roadways.

NCBA is also opposing a federal requirement of commercial driver’s licenses for farmers and ranchers.

Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition, is also disappointed that the weight provision was not included in the final mark-up.

“It’s our opinion you could responsibly expand semi weight limits by adding a sixth axle to the trailer and by expanding up to 97,000 pounds with that sixth axle, you can load 183 additional bushels of soybeans per trip,” Steenhoek said. “That’s a real savings on fuel for farmers, it’s a real savings on time, it really seems to be a common sense approach to expanding our capacity.”

Steenhoek says while the provision to increase truck weight limits was not included in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee mark-up, the provision to renew the agricultural harvest time exemption from the hours-of-service rules that limit the number of hours truck drivers may operate was included.

Transportation rules and regulations are inconsistent and hinder the flow of commerce for small businesses, according to NCBA. Inconsistencies lead to greater transportation costs that strain the budgets of familyowned cattle operations.

NCBA encourages improvements in shipping efficiency and safety by creating greater consistency of truck weights and vehicle operator requirements.

The original bill, introduced in July of 2011, the Safe and Efficient Transportation Act of 2011 (H.R. 763 and S. 747), allowed a state to authorize a vehicle with a maximum gross weight exceeding certain federal weight limitations to operate on Interstate Highway System (IHS) routes in the state if: (1) the vehicle is equipped with at least six axles, (2) the weight of any single axle does not exceed 20,000 pounds, (3) the weight of any tandem axle does not exceed 34,000 pounds, (4) the weight of any group of 3 or more axles does not exceed 51,000 pounds, and (5) the gross weight of the vehicle does not exceed 97,000 pounds. The bill directed the secretary of Transportation to establish a safe and efficient vehicle bridge infrastructure improvement program and required the secretary to apportion amounts from the Safe and Efficient Vehicle Trust Fund to states for eligible bridge replacement or rehabilitation projects. It also amended the Internal Revenue Code to: (1) impose a tax on any vehicles that exceed federal weight limitations operating on the IHS, and (2) establish the Safe and Efficient Vehicle Trust Fund.

The final voting was nonpartisan, with both Republicans and Democrats weighing in on either side.

Democrat Michael Michaud of Maine, a longtime champion of higher truck weight limits in that state, voted for the provision to increase weights. Maine’s experience with heavier trucks shows fewer accidents because the heavy traffic shifts from back roads to Interstates that can handle that traffic more safely, he said.

Michaud said the deciding factor is really the railroads. “It’s not about safety, but rails,” he said. “The rails are set against this.”

Perhaps the decisive vote for the amendment came from Rep. John Duncan, R-TN, who chairs the Subcommittee on Highways and Transit. Duncan said he supported the amendment because there needs to be more time to educate the public on this issue.

Republican John Mica, the chairman of the committee, also voted against the amendment.

“We have been through this debate for an entire year,” he said, explaining that he saw the provision as compromise that would give states that do not already have higher weight limits the option of taking an increase. “It’s a fairness issue.”

Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor