One might as well ponder what came first — the pothole or the truck — as figure out how to fix our roads.

The national shame that is America's broken highways was not created overnight (see “Roads to Hell Part I,” FO 8/05) nor will it be rectified anytime soon. That's the bad news.

The good news is the road situation will have to be addressed because there's no getting around the transportation of goods by truck is a crucial underpinning of the U.S. economy, not to mention the American way of life.

Yet the longer this country's road users — truckers first and foremost — wait to demand government action, the more it will cost and the longer it will take to get our highway infrastructure fully on the road to recovery.

Complicating matters, as it does most things, is politics. The bald truth is highways are big business, for those who make them, those who use and pay for them, and those who authorize them. To get road reform of any stripe requires reconciling the needs and wants of special interests beyond trucking.

POLITICAL PRESSURE

As the largest commercial user of the U.S. road system and the linchpin of our consumer-driven economy, trucking has to be heavily engaged in every campaign that impacts the surface mobility infrastructure of the U.S., from highway funding to road design to commercial-vehicle size and weight reform, even to whether tolls should be more widespread.

“All politics is local,” the late Speaker of the House Thomas P. “Tip” O'Neill was fond of saying. Don't forget he represented Boston, today the site of one of the truly massive public-works projects of our time, the “Big Dig” that's tucking miles of highways under the Charles River.

When completed, the “Central Artery/Tunnel Project” will result in a six-lane elevated highway being replaced by an eight-to-ten-lane underground expressway terminating in a 14-lane, two-bridge river crossing as well as other major road improvements, says the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority.

At a cost of billions, Boston is being promised a highway truly designed around the locale it serves. That is the kind of real money — not to mention political will — that will have to be expended to fix existing but outdated roads and bridges all across America.

However, the highway problem is bigger than fixing the asphalt already laid down. The real issue is how to ensure there are enough roads for everyone who needs to be on the road.

Bringing the long view into focus, it's very clear that fixing our highway mess to trucking's satisfaction will ultimately require size and weight reform for commercial vehicles.

The most cost-effective way to get more truck capacity is not with more trucks and more road miles, but with trucks that can carry more over the roads we now have.

Imagine what would happen if the legal size and weight of trucks could be increased in a uniform fashion across the country in concert with new roads being constructed and old roads repaired to the appropriate design standards for larger combination vehicles (LCVs) as deemed necessary.

If all that were accomplished, trucking and U.S. commerce overall would benefit from vastly improved transportation productivity. And all motorists — be they on the road for business or pleasure — would drive over less congested roadways.

Of course, “if” is a big word, and a gargantuan one when it comes to fixing America's broken highways. The roadblocks are substantial, with the biggest obstacle of all being, plain and simple, politics.

SIZING IT UP

“The road to hell,” quipped novelist Philip Roth, “is paved with works-in-progress.” He could very well have said that of the $286.4-billion yet woefully inadequate highway bill signed by President George W. Bush last month. There were members of Congress who would have voted for a bill worth up to $400 billion but they were out-politicked by the White House.

So this legislation will deliver funds that will largely go to maintaining existing roads. In short, forget about seeing many new miles of asphalt being poured, despite the multibillion-dollar price tag.

What's worse, the bill contains no provisions to look at, let alone reform, the uniform size and weight regulations pertaining to commercial vehicles on Interstate and other federally designated national highways.

Those have been in place since the dawn of the Interstate era a half-century ago. But despite the productivity gains promised by heavier vehicles, their arrival down the road remains decidedly dicey. That's because highway safety advocates lobbying against the trucking industry have for years effectively painted higher-weight vehicles as a dangerous menace to the motoring public.

Contrast the situation here with Ontario, Canada's most populous province, which has long enjoyed much more liberal truck size and weight rules.

Turns out it could even be said that Ontario's experience has been a tad too truck-friendly. Due to concerns about pavement damage, the province has begun dialing back some of its most liberal allowances. But Ontario is still a world away from the 80,000-lb. GCW maximum that's the standard limit here.

IT'S THE AXLES

“Ontario allows some of the heaviest weights in North America, up to multi-axle semi-trailers carrying as much as 140,000 lb.,” says Ron Madill, project leader — vehicle weight & dimension reforms for the Ontario Ministry of Transportation. “We believe operating heavier commercial vehicles has been beneficial [to our economy] and over the years have invested in highways built to handle these vehicles.”

Madill explains that the key to the Ontario approach is ensuring there are enough axles on an approved vehicle to properly distribute the weight being carried so that the pavement or bridges being traversed are not damaged.

He says concern over some of the more extreme combinations allowed by the province has led to a detailed study and ongoing reform of the regulations.

“At issue were multi-axle tractor-semi-trailer rigs that require liftable axles to enable cornering,” Madill explains. “We found that when these axles were lifted, the axle-weight distribution was affected enough to damage the pavement. And some of these vehicles experience instability that resulted in a higher-than-average rate of collisions.”

As a result, Ontario is reforming its size and weight regulations category by category. “We've now implemented the first three of four phases, which cover all tractor-trailer combinations,” Madill notes. “The final phase, about three years out, will deal with straight trucks.”

Madill explains that the new regs represent a “careful balancing act in which our goal was to keep the trucks as productive as possible, but ensure that weight is being properly distributed to address concerns about pavement and bridge wear.”

To boil it down, the upshot is Ontario law will now require the use of self-steering axles on certain combinations. “We had a very permissive system in Ontario,” Madill remarks. “Now we've moved to a prescriptive system that lets truck operators choose from one of 13 vehicle setups. If they choose not to conform by the effective dates, they have to face a two-step weight reduction [penalty], which is a strong disincentive!”

As for the other half of the equation, Madill concedes that none of this will work if road surfaces are not up to snuff. “The weight of the vehicles and the frequency of their travel must be considered when designing or maintaining a highway or bridge,” he says. “All the bridges and roads built in Ontario for the past 35 years have been built to these new standards. Older bridges are tested and posted as needed.”

Madill points out that the “most standard” combination in Ontario is the tandem-drive tractor coupled to a tandem-axle semi-trailer up to 53 ft. long that is so familiar on American roads. “That combination would be rated a maximum 80,000 lb. in the U.S,” he advises, “but under Ontario rules, with proper axle-weight distribution, it could range up to 94,000 lb.”

Indeed, according to studies released on this side of the border, U.S. trucks could grow heavier — to the neighborhood of 84,000 to 96,000 lb. — without requiring exotic equipment or without unduly impacting pavement wear and tear.

An encouraging wrinkle in all this is a push for determining U.S. truck size and weight regs using the type of “performance-based standards” that allow such exotic heavyweights as Australia's thundering Road Trains to legally roll elsewhere.

Back in 1996, Iowa State University's Center for Transportation Research and Education (CTRE) published a white paper by James York and T.H. Maze that presents how truck size and weight could be regulated, as they are in 31 industrialized nations, via performance-based standards that focus on the vehicle's interaction with traffic and highway infrastructure.

Call it the smart approach, one that the authors argue is more effective than the prescriptive-based system in the U.S. that requires fixed size and weight limits “regardless of the performance” of the vehicle.

“It is extremely difficult to glean guidance from the international experience to determine the ideal set of performance-based standards to transfer to the U.S.,” York and Maze write.

“If performance-based standards were embraced, future standards could be required to meet or exceed present bridge/road wear and safety performance of vehicles permitted under the STAA of 1982….to encourage a move to such improved equipment, vehicle operators could be provided with incentives to operate vehicles which impose less wear to highway infrastructure and impose less impact on the traffic safety environment. Incentives to vehicle operators may take the form of allowing greater gross vehicle weights and vehicle configurations which can accommodate greater cargo volume.”

However, the authors also take great pains to explain that, however desirable, such a switchover would be complicated, especially in terms of cost-justification of the impact on roadway maintenance and highway safety as well as how enforcement of the new standards would be handled.

ZERO DEMAND

CTRE did not have the last word on this topic. In the fall of ‘03, the Transportation Research Board (TRB) issued its Congressionally requested study “Regulations of Weights, Lengths and Widths of Commercial Motor Vehicles,” which declared, “Reform of federal truck size and weight regulations could improve the efficiency of the highway system. Reform may allow larger trucks to operate.”

One of the key points made in this report, penned by TRB's Joseph Morris, is that changes in size and weight regs should come with “complementary changes” in the management of the highway system.

But what looks good on paper won't necessarily make mountains jump in Washington, DC. “There is zero demand, political traction if you will, for size and weight reform in Congress,” says Gary Petty, president & CEO of the National Private Truck Council (NPTC). “This [resistance] is not based on a rational scientific review of the issue but an emotional perception, fanned by national and local media portrayals of trucks as already too big and dangerous.”

That political traction is so weak that trucking lobbyists marked it a victory that the new highway bill came through without the SHIPA (Safe Highway & Infrastructure Preservation Act) provision pushed for by some safety advocates that would have put more federal restrictions — not fewer — on state size and weight regs.

Darrin Roth, director of highway operations for the American Trucking Assns. (ATA), says it is “incumbent on the federal government to make some logical changes” to size and weight rules. While such reform was not part of the highway bill just signed, Roth says ATA is “looking intensely toward the next highway bill.” He agrees that “we are not allowing the most efficient yet road-friendly trucks to operate here for no scientific reason. Congress needs to look at this for the long-term impact.”

NPTC's Petty contends that “a scientific basis must be presented for a solution that is perhaps midway from what we have now and what Canada has. We already have heavier vehicles operating under permit in some states.”

“Axle weight is really at the heart of the matter,” says ATA's Roth. “Gross vehicle weight really means nothing to the pavement. It's the distribution of the weight being carried over the axles that matters.”

“Productivity,” NPTC's Petty emphasizes, “is the issue. There's no getting around that the volume of freight moving on the highway is growing exponentially larger than road capacity. The ideal would be a policy that emphasizes optimizing the vehicle and the road.”

Petty argues that “going to 96,000 lb. GCW alone would add tremendous productivity. In fact, operators have shown that when running in Michigan, where heavier weights are allowed, they can deliver 20% more goods with fewer vehicles than in neighboring Illinois.

“So to not allow heavier combinations makes no public policy sense at all,” he continues. “It's as if we have to reach a crisis in which products are not getting to market before we can force a change in these regulations.”

Petty figures trucking could get the ball rolling by lobbying for some “demonstration programs to show the efficiency, safety and roadway impact of larger commercial vehicles.”

ATA's Roth points out that the rest of the industrialized world, including Canada and Mexico, have gone to a 96,000- to 97,000-lb. GCW tractor with tridem (three axles at rear) trailer. “By next year,” he notes “ATA plans to have solid recommendations to talk about.”

Of course, if the 97,000-lb.-or-so solution comes to pass, America will still need roads and bridges beefed up to varying degrees and that will cost money, the kind of money absent from the highway bill just inked. And it was only after years of fighting over how much to spend on that legislation — and 11 extensions — that it was finally passed.

PAVING THE WAY

“The highway bill just passed is essentially a highway maintenance bill,” stresses ATA's Roth. “And the states will not make the kind of investments needed to increase road capacity.

“All this makes changes in size and weight attractive [as a means to increase freight-carrying capacity,” he continues. “And bear in mind that changes only need to be made to actual pavement if truck axle weights, not gross vehicle weights, are increased.

“Bridges are a little different,” Roth notes. “Depending on what vehicle weight and length is determined, some bridges may have to be strengthened or replaced to carry truck traffic. Most Interstate bridges would not have to be adjusted [to carry proposed 96,000-lb. GCW combination vehicles].”

According to a report issued this May by the nonprofit transportation research group TRIP, some comfort can be taken by the fact states increasingly are using high-quality pavement and designs tailored to withstand different climates and traffic loads. “These new pavement designs and materials can result in smoother, more durable pavements but require a larger initial investment.”

TRIP specifically references high-performance concrete and Super-pave hot-mix asphalt as pavements of choice. The group also urges transportation agencies to invest adequately to ensure that 75% of local road surfaces are in “good” condition.

No one would argue with that result; it's making the necessary investment that's tough when most voters are screaming for all levels of government to cut spending.

PAY TO PLAY

That is why past is prologue when it comes to tolls. Just a few years ago, highway tolls were being ripped out by states that had paid off their highway bonds.

Or they were pulled down at the behest of safety advocates who successfully argued against their presence smack dab in the middle of high-speed highways.

Now, the mantra seems to be “pay to play” again. Just as too few have the political guts to push size and weight reform, no politician in his or her right mind is going to push for higher fuel taxes as truckers and motorists are paying more than ever to fill up.

And that makes toll roads much more politically feasible than they have been in a very long time.

According to analysis by the Truckload Carriers Assn. (TCA), the new highway bill allows tolls on up to 15 demonstration projects, including on the Interstate system, to help reduce congestion. These tolls must be on new lanes only, with the exception of HOV lanes. The bill also calls for creating a new “Interstate System Construction Program.” This allows tolls on up to three Interstate Highway corridors but, says TCA, it's unclear at this point as to whether these tolls are to be permitted on existing lanes or new lanes only.

Truckers are, to say the least, not historically drawn to tolls. In some cases, trucks as well as cars may have no choice if they want to travel a toll road to save time or just get where they need to be.

What's more, trucking may eventually find acceptance of more tolling will become the cost of admission to the promised land of truck size and weight reform.

“Big spending bills that pay to expand roads on the taxpayer's nickel are in their sunset years,” contends NPTC's Petty. “Instead, we're seeing government begin to concede [highways] to private investors in exchange for the right to collect tolls.

“Rather than seeing new tolls as a form of double taxation,” he adds, “perhaps trucking should see them as the qualifier to optimize road capacity by getting higher size and weights allowed than are now permitted.”

Time will tell if it will be at the junction of a toll revival and size-and-weight reform that politics will meet the pavement for trucking's and, ultimately, the country's benefit. Until then, mind the potholes.