Turning a corner on weight

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It’s fair to say we’re making a good deal of progress on this issue. Clearly, the dynamics of the heavier truck weight debate are shifting, and shifting in our favor.” –John Runyan, executive director of the Coalition for Transportation Productivity, about the approval by a U.S. Senate-House of Representatives conference committee of legislative language enabling both Maine and Vermont to conduct one-year pilot projects allowing heavier, six-axle trucks full access to the interstate highways within their borders

A big step (no pun intended) occurred this week on the subject of potentially boosting the federal weight limit on tractor-trailers operating on U.S. highways. A U.S. Senate-House of Representatives conference committee gave the thumbs up to legislative language enabling both Maine and now Vermont to conduct one-year pilot projects allowing six-axle trucks hauling 100,000 pounds or more full access to the interstate highways within their borders.

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This move follows a similar pilot program provision authored by Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) back in September that temporarily exempted Maine's interstate highways from the current 80,000 pound, five-axle federal truck weight limit ostensibly to prevent heavier trucks from being forced off the highway onto smaller, secondary roads that pass through cities, towns, and rural neighborhoods.

What’s interesting about the legislative language on the subject of higher truck weights is that Sen.Patrick Leahy (D-VT) has joined the fray, creating some bipartisan momentum on this issue, though he’s viewing this as a freight productivity issue and more as a safety concern. It’s also interesting that the weight ceiling is higher for Vermont, allowing 108,000 to 120,000 pound rigs to operate on the highways.

“Vermont state policy and neighboring states’ policies on truck weights have produced the reality that overweight trucks are here, and they will continue to operate in Vermont,” Leahy explained in a press release.

“No one thinks that overweight trucks should rumble through our historic villages and downtowns on two-lane roads, putting people and our state’s failing transportation infrastructure at risk,” the Senator said. “This step will get these trucks out of our downtowns in the short term. In the longer term it will help us determine, with real-world experience, whether it is safer and better for both our infrastructure and the environment to have these trucks use the Interstate system.”

John Runyan, executive director of the Coalition for Transportation Productivity (CTP), completely agrees with Leahy’s reasoning, especially on the safety question.

“Both pilot projects would harmonize federal and state weight limits, giving trucks full access to interstate systems engineered for commercial vehicles rather than forcing them onto rural roads that wind through small towns,” Runyan explained.

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“In Vermont, heavier trucks traveling from Canada would no longer need to leave the interstate. And in Maine, heavier trucks traveling on a portion of I-95 known as the Maine Turnpike would no longer be forced back onto secondary roads when they reach Augusta,” he added. “In fact, consulting firm Wilbur Smith Associates found that opening Maine’s interstates to heavier vehicles would eliminate three fatal crashes per year.”

CTP is supporting a broader effort to raise truck weights nationwide through the Safe and Efficient Transportation Act of 2009 (H.R. 1799), sponsored by Reps. Michael Michaud (D-ME) and Jean Schmidt (R-OH). That bill would give each state the option to increase its interstate vehicle weight limit to 97,000 pounds for trucks equipped with a sixth axle for safety.

The additional axle maintains current braking capacity and weight-per-tire-distribution and minimizes pavement wear, said Runyan, while allowing shippers to more fully fill tractor-trailer to boost shipping efficiency without changing truck size – while a user fee imposed by the bill would fund bridge repairs if the heavier weights end up leading to greater wear and tear on such structures.

“There’s also a growing sense that all the authoritative studies done concerning the impact of higher truck weights – both by state and federal authorities, as well as international studies – show that greater productivity does not have to come at the expense of safety, that heavier trucks can actually be safer trucks as well.”

Not everyone sees it that way, of course.

“Motorists in Maine and Vermont deserve more than being human guinea pigs in this dangerous experiment,” said John Lannen, executive director of the Truck Safety Coalition. “A report back to Congress on the effectiveness of this one-year program isn't even due for two years, which leads us to believe that this experiment will likely continue until the report is issued and analyzed by Congress.”

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Lannen said, given what he calls “the already deplorable condition of Vermont roads,” this legislative action is a highly regressive public policy that will hasten the deterioration of Vermont interstate highways and bridges while threatening the safety of everyone on Vermont's roads by allowing big tractor-trailer rigs to pile on additional tens of thousands of pounds of extra weight.

“That extra weight has already been proven to dramatically accelerate infrastructure deterioration in a New England state that already has a woefully under-funded highway program and both roads and bridges that are rated as extremely poor by both the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) and The Road Information Program,” Lannen added.

“The ASCE found that almost 40% of Vermont's bridges were deficient or obsolete, one of the worst records of bridge condition and safety in the nation. Trucks weighing 120,000 pounds on Vermont's interstate bridges will demolish old, unrepaired Vermont bridges at a frightening rate, according to the findings of studies released by the National Academy of Sciences,” he noted. “This kind of dramatic leap in truck gross weight can trigger a catastrophic bridge collapse.”

Those comments illustrate pretty clearly that the moves by Senators Collins and Leahy to allow heavier trucks to operate on the federal highways cross-crossing their respective states is not going to go forward without a fight. The ultimate question to be answered in all of this, though, is pretty simple: can heavier trucks be as safe or safer than current trucks, as well as more efficient and productive? It will be interesting to see, in the end, which side of the debate our politicians come down upon.

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