Weight and see

| July 08, 2008

Randy Grider
Editor
rgrider@rrpub.com

For years, a faction of trucking and shipping interests has advocated increasing the payload limits of commercial trucks on the National Highway System from 80,000 pounds to 97,000 pounds.

With skyrocketing fuel costs, more congestion and the so-called driver shortage, which is expected to become a greater issue in the next few years as forecasted freight tonnage increases, the debate over heavier trucks will be a hot topic in coming months.

In May, the Americans for Safe and Efficient Transportation, a coalition of shippers, motor carriers and trucking and manufacturers’ associations, lobbied Congress to adopt a pilot program in the upcoming highway reauthorization bill.

ASET wants Georgia, Maine, Minnesota, South Carolina, Wisconsin and possibly Texas to pilot a study allowing 97,000-pound tractor-trailers with the use of a three-axle trailer. The group points to Europe and the border countries of Canada and Mexico to further their argument. Heavy loads arriving from other countries must get special permits or the freight must be broken up and placed on smaller U.S. trucks when arriving in the United States, which ASET says worsens congestion, requires more fuel to get the loads to their destinations and ultimately costs all parties in cash.

While ASET believes using border and port states for a pilot study will showcase how shipping can be made more efficient and economical, it’s still pretty narrow in scope. In order to drive true efficiency in the trucking industry, the heavier truck concept would need to be applied to a much greater number of trucks moving goods throughout the country.

But even this small-scale proposal has a great deal of opposition. The Teamsters, the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, Public Citizen, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety and others cite safety and damage to highway infrastructure as top reasons not to increase weight limits.

Recently, U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) introduced legislation for the second time to keep tractor-trailers limited to 80,000 pounds and 53 feet in length on the 160,000-mile National Highway System. In 2003, Lautenberg wrote the law limiting triple-trailers to a few states.

A growing trend to decrease the size of packaging of some goods may make future proposals for longer trucks less viable, but it has, and will continue to, increase pallet weight, which gives some credence to raising weight limits.

The costly congestion and fuel price arguments may have credibility, too, but the questioned safety of heavier trucks and their potential damage to highways and bridges will be hard to counter in the political and public arenas.

Last summer’s tragic I-35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis is still fresh in the minds of many people. Forget the argument that the bridge wasn’t used heavily by truck traffic, and overstress and long-term fatigue causes most deterioration of bridges. Forget that most interstate bridges are built to handle loads in excess of 97,000 pounds. Forget the extra axle requirement and forget bridge formulas. That single accident did more to hurt the push for heavier trucks than congestion and spiking fuel can undo.

Still, there is the other variable in the equation that doesn’t get as much attention. It’s the driver. What upside is there for the driver? Arguably, there isn’t one. Right now rates for drivers hauling permitted heavier loads are better than the average haul. If all trucks are permitted to carry heavier loads, rates would be equal among all. Past weight increases haven’t helped drivers’ bottom lines, and another uniform increase likely won’t either.

Shippers and manufacturers have the most to gain financially. Some carriers, especially less-than-truckload, flatbed and bulk, also would see gains, but others, mainly truckload, would be at a disadvantage if market forces dictated an increase in equipment costs without a revenue benefit. In truckload, mileage is more important than overall weight of the load.

As for the driver shortage, in theory heavier trucks could help if, as some have predicted, an increase in freight tonnage corresponds with a shortfall of drivers.

But remember that being in demand is far more profitable for drivers than putting more cargo in fewer trucks.

Like bridge formulas, the debate over heavier trucks is complicated. It’s easy to see the pluses and minuses, but solving the problem is tough. In the end, the goal of combating congestion is the proponents’ best argument for heavier trucks, but it won’t pack enough weight to win the battle.

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