Bigger trucks revisited

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Meeting the freight transportation needs of a growing economy in a safe and efficient manner is the challenge for all of us.” -Jeffrey Paniati, executive director, Federal Highway Administration, in testimony before Congress last week


The debate over whether to increase federal truck size and weight laws is getting turned up a notch as the various interest groups start digging in on their positions.


One early casualty in this battle is the veracity of information being aired in public, especially an account reported in this space of a possible pilot program headed by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) to test heavier and longer trucks in states along the U.S. border with Mexico. That scenario got floated out there by the Teamsters - no doubt eager to land more punches against the agency‘s Mexican carrier pilot program - but FMCSA is quickly debunking it.


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That‘s because its sister agency, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) is the one in the midst of reviewing truck size and weight laws - an issue Jeffrey Paniati, the group‘s executive director, testified about before the U.S. House of Representative‘s subcommittee on highways and transit last week. FMCSA officials were only on hand to answer enforcement questions from members of Congress, if there were any - and there weren‘t.


OK - now to the real question. What are the regulators up to when it comes to truck size and weight laws?


Well, the size and weight issue is actually a byproduct of an FHWA project looking into the feasibility of “truck-only” lanes to help reduce traffic congestion while speeding up freight transit times.


“As part of the Department of Transportation‘s Congestion Initiative ... we are exploring this idea with partners and stakeholders ... conducting a benefit-cost analysis to determine the economic feasibility of truck-only lanes,” Paniati said. “Part of this discussion has included the operational parameters that would warrant the construction of such lanes, including the percentage of trucks in the traffic stream, the average annual daily truck traffic on the roadway, and the proximity of large freight generators. We are also considering whether changes to size and weight restrictions would be necessary to make these truck-only lanes economically viable.”


To date, Paniati said FHWA has held two forums with the trucking industry and the safety advocates and plans to keep talking with shippers, truckers, safety advocates and the public in future discussions of this option. “The smooth and secure flow of freight is vital to our nation‘s economy and to our global competitiveness, while keeping in mind our responsibility to provide a safe, efficient and reliable transportation network to the country,” he stressed.


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The safety part of the size and weight discussion is where FHWA is collaborating with FMCSA, developing automated roadside enforcement tools to support faster and more efficient weighing and inspecting of trucks and enable driver and company validation at highway speeds.


“For example, our current estimates indicate that less than one percent of the trucks weighed are issued citations for being illegally overweight,” said Paniati. “This means that too many trucks at legal weight are having their trips needlessly interrupted. ‘Smart‘ roadside screening tools would identify trucks that exceed pre-established enforcement thresholds, enabling more efficient and effective enforcement of size and weight requirements. This effort can improve productivity without compromising safety or infrastructure preservation.”


There are still an awful lot to work out where truck size and weight is concerned. In conversations with truck drivers on Sirius satellite radio‘s “The Loading Dock” program, the big worries centered on the handling and braking requirements for longer, heavier trucks and how bigger rigs would impact their pay. Drivers didn‘t like the idea of hauling more revenue-generating freight for the same level of pay one bit.


The cost of bigger trucks is also much on the minds of FHWA officials as well. “The last Federal highway cost allocation study, completed in 2000, showed that many of the heaviest trucks pay considerably less than their highway cost responsibility,” said Paniati. “While not recommending immediate changes in truck tax rates, that study indicated that if truck size and weights were changed in the future, changes in Federal truck taxes should also be evaluated to match appropriately the pavement and bridge wear caused by the heavier trucks.”


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The railroads aren‘t standing idly by in this discussion, either. Wendell Cox, author of the annual Congestion Relief Index study and principal of Demographia, a market research and urban policy consultancy, noted that if 25% of freight volume is shifted from trucks to rail, by 2026, commuters across the U.S. could each save an average of $985 in fuel costs. Even more, the shift of freight volume would save commuters 41 hours a year - an entire workweek - in time spent in their cars, his research showed.


“With gas prices at an all-time high, Americans can‘t afford to waste money and time sitting in traffic. Because one intermodal train can take nearly 300 trucks off our highways, shifting freight from trucks to trains reduces competition between commuters, drivers and freight traffic for space on the road,” Cox said. “Freeing up space on our highways increases the flow of traffic and saves commuters‘ time, money and gasoline.”


The study went on to note that freight trains are at least four times more fuel-efficient than trucks, and can move one ton of freight 436 miles on a single gallon of fuel. Since modern freight locomotives emit less nitrogen oxide and particulate matter than trucks, shifting 25% of freight volume from trucks to trains would decrease air pollutant emissions by 920,500 tons.


“In order to realize the full potential of freight rail in reducing highway congestion and saving commuters‘ time and money, we need to ensure that there is sufficient rail capacity,” said Cox.


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Ah, but there‘s the rub. Truckers already working hand-in-glove with the railroads say that all-important capacity is non-existent. Bill Zollars, chairman, president and CEO of YRC Worldwide, specifically addressed this issue in a luncheon with transportation reporters last week. “Rail is becoming a real challenge because service has deteriorated so much - it‘s more expensive and less reliable,” he said. “The rails are full of coal and grain and are out of capacity. So we‘re moving away from it to truckload, which is more effective for cross-country moves.


The problem with rail, Zollars added, is that you can‘t get it where you need to get it, you can‘t get it there on time, and they have no capacity. “That‘s why 70% of the freight in this country is moved by truck,” he noted.


Needless to day, the debate over whether to allow heavier and longer trucks to operate on our roads is just getting started. It‘ll very interesting to see where it goes from here.

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