CINCINNATI. By and large, private fleet managers continue to seek higher weight limits for commercial trucks as the best way to address economic productivity, traffic congestion, highway safety, and environmental concerns. What’s more, they figure the political winds will blow in their favor on this issue only for a short time.

“With truck traffic growing 11 times faster than road capacity, with overall traffic congestion still expected to double by 2035, this is the time to act to allow for higher gross vehicle weight limits on our highways,” Harry Haney III, associate director--logistics operations for Kraft Foods, said in comments here at the National Private Truck Council’s (NPTC)annual meeting. “Now is the time to act on this – it’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity.”

NPTC is one of the many groups backing the Safe and Efficient Transportation Act (H.R. 1799), introduced by Rep. Michael Michaud (D-ME), which would allow individual states to increase their interstate vehicle weight limits to 97,000 lbs – but only for vehicles equipped with a sixth axle. The bill also imposes a user fee for six-axle units that would help fund vital bridge repair.

According to the Coalition for Transportation Productivity (CTP), made up of over 150 associations and companies, including NPTC, Kraft Foods, MillerCoors, and International Paper, the extra axle is key. CTP contends that-- without changing the size or length of the truck-- the additional axle would maintain braking capacity and the current distribution of weight per tire while minimizing pavement wear.

“There used to be enormous differences of opinion on this [higher truck weight] issue among private and for-hire carriers,” added Gary Petty, NPTC president & CEO. “But now there is more consensus as shippers – including manufacturers, distributors, and others – have coalesced around this issue. It’s not just truckers anymore. That’s really changed the game.”

Kraft’s Haney said 53 members of the U.S. House of Representatives are backing H.R. 1799, and that “good progress” is being made to gain the support of the Dept. of Transportation (DOT) and law enforcement groups on the issue.

He added that one-year pilot tests of 100,000-lb, six-axle tractor-trailers are currently ongoing in Maine and Vermont. These pilots should provide a host of positive data on the potential benefits of larger trucks.

A 2009 Wisconsin Dept. of Transportation study determined that if a law like H.R. 1799 had been in place in 2006, it would have prevented 90 truck-related accidents in the state during 2006, while companies would have saved more than $150 million in transportation costs. Similarly, in 2001, Greta Britain raised the gross vehicle weight limit for six-axle trucks to 44 tons (97,000 lbs) and since then, saw fatal truck-related accident rates decline by 35%.

Even environmental groups historically opposed to higher truck weight limits are starting to re-examine this issue.

“Though we don’t favor boosting truck size and weight for safety reasons, it is hard to dispute that there could be some substantial fuel savings with size and weight changes,” Deron Lovaas, transportation expert Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), told FleetOwner earlier this year. “There is potential there, so we’re still looking at talking about possible solutions in this area.”

(Read "NRDC suggests how trucking can help cut U.S. oil vulnerability")

“Allowing for heavier trucks offers the potential to both significantly lower diesel fuel consumption and reduce traffic congestion on our roadways,” said Larry Ahlers, vp-transportation for global building products company Oldcastle Architecture, in a speech he gave at the NPTC convention.

“H.R. 1799 could have a tremendous positive impact on the transportation industry,” he stressed. “But there is also a limited window of opportunity to act on this issue; it may not open again for five to 10 years.”