Heated rhetoric builds over heavier trucks

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It is fiscally irresponsible as well as morally unethical for Maine DOT officials to be lobbying for extending this dangerous heavy truck project for the trucking industry.” –Joan Claybrook, former president of Public Citizen and current chairperson of advocacy group Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways (CRASH)

It’s one thing to disagree over allowing heavier weight trucks to ply America’s highways. But it’s something else to publicly condemn two state transportation agencies, as well as the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), as liars and cover-up artists that are “morally unethical.”

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Yet that’s what the groups Parents Against Tired Truckers (PATT), the Truck Safety Coalition (TSC) and of course Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways (CRASH) are essentially calling the Maine Department of Transportation (MaineDOT), the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans), and the FHWA in response to efforts to extend one-year pilot programs that allowed 100,000-pound trucks on sections of Maine’s interstates and 99,000-pound trucks on Vermont’s interstates.

Here’s why they are saying this. The TSC, an umbrella group comprised of PATT and CRASH, requested records related to Maine’s heavy truck pilot program under that state’s Freedom of Access law and said it received documents revealing the following:

• FHWA found serious safety issues with allowing these overweight trucks on bridges

• MaineDOT and VTrans pressured FHWA to downplay these safety issues in the Congressionally-mandated six-month report and instead stress unproven economic benefits;

• Taxpayers will be the ones to pay the price for these pilot programs as costs to repair roads and bridges will be pushed onto them.

“We were initially astounded to discover that federal and state government officials were collaborating behind closed doors with special trucking interests during the pilot program,” John Lannen, TSC’s executive director, said in a prepared statement.

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“Then we were further shocked to learn that state and federal government employees had proof that putting 100,000 pound trucks on bridges could reduce the factor of safety and cause them to overstress,” he added. “They ignored the hazards and plowed ahead with this dangerous, ill-advised plan. These emails and documents show that the public has been blindsided as to the risks of this project.”

“As a citizen of Maine, a taxpayer, and a mother whose son was needlessly killed in a truck crash, I am outraged that my state government officials put special interests before the safety of innocent motorists,” added Daphne Izer, founder of PATT and volunteer coordinator for TSC.

“When lobbying for this overweight truck project, the trucking industry emphatically argued that allowing heavier trucks will result in fewer trucks on Maine’s roads. Just the opposite has happened,” she said in a statement. “The number of six-axle 100,000 pound trucks on the roads monitored by MaineDOT has more than doubled since the pilot project started.”

And – of course – Joan Claybrook, former president of Public Citizen and CRASH’s chairperson, had words to add as well. “It’s time to put the brakes on this dangerous pilot program,” she said in her own statement. “Do we have to have a bridge collapse like I-35W in Minneapolis with multiple deaths and injuries before government officials stop this reckless experiment?

In sum, to call such comments incendiary is sort of like saying a forest fire covering several thousand square acres can make things slightly warm.

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Now, these advocacy groups have laid out the documentation in support of their pronouncements online here. You can go look and review the evidence for yourself.

Meanwhile, groups in support of allowing heavier weight trucks to operate on U.S. highways – with all sorts of safety requirements and extra fees, mind you – believe the documentation in question is totally being taken out of context.

“The Maine and Vermont pilot programs have moved heavy vehicles from less safe state roads to the more capable interstate system, creating a safer, more efficient highway network in both states,” John Runyan, executive director for the Coalition for Transportation Productivity (CTP) told me by email.

“No amount of hyperbole, unrelated anecdotes or out of context quotes can change that fact. And it is why the Obama Administration has joined the Maine and Vermont DOTs in endorsing the amendment [to permanently extend the pilot programs] by Sen. Susan Collins (D-ME).”

[Here’s a clip of Runyan detailing what benefits heavier trucks can provide.]

I’ve talked with Runyan many times about the reasoning behind allowing heavier trucks on U.S. roadways and he fully admits it’s a topic hotly debated within the transportation community, even among truckers themselves.

What he continues to find strange, though, is how many groups oppose heavier trucks on the issue of safety. As Runyan has told me many times, 100,000 pound trucks plied the roads of Maine and Vermont for years, but were restricted to state roads – that is, usually small, narrow two-lane ribbons of asphalt poking through town after town, village after village.

Allowing these heavier rigs to use highways, then, would thus lower any risk they potentially pose to motorists as well as pedestrians. Scuttling the pilot programs in question would merely return these behemoths to local state roads – not eradicate them from the asphalt.

“The key rationale behind all of this hinges on safety in the first place,” he said, pointing to a United Kingdom study that revealed, six years after that nation raised truck weight limits to the equivalent of 100,000 pounds, truck-involved accidents fell sharply.

Maine discerned several benefits beyond the safety issue from its one-year experiment allowing heavier trucks to operate on its highways, which you can see here.

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Now, to be sure, as Maine and Vermont already had allowed heavier trucks to operate on their state roads, the proper configuration (a sixth axle) already existed, with that extra axle adding vitally needed braking power to stop the vehicle as well as a way to distribute the extra tonnage enough to prevent damage to pavement and bridges.

Thus, truckers in other states would need to upgrade their equipment if similar heavier weight allowances were put in place.

There’s also a realization that heavier trucks aren’t a “silver bullet” to fuel consumption and congestion issues where commercial vehicles are concerned. Far more truckers “cube out” before they “weigh out” so longer combination vehicles (LCVs) need to be addressed eventually as well.

At the end of the day, though, the questions are these: Are having more trucks or fewer (albeit heavier) trucks operating on our highways better in terms of safety? In terms of reducing fuel consumption? In terms of reducing air pollution?

If so, then maybe it’s time to -- rationally -- look at how to gain those benefits.

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