Proposed changes to Federal laws may allow triple tractor-trailer trucks, longer doubles, and longer, heavier singles on Federal highways. Supporters say the measures would increase productivity, reduce truck traffic, and actually make roads safer. Opponents, however, say they would increase fatal crashes and damage roads and bridges.
The Coalition Against Bigger Trucks is dedicated to battling against several proposals it believes could gain traction in Congress. One would allow triple tractor-trailer trucks, while another would increase the current maximum length for double tractor-trailers from 28 feet per trailer to 33 feet per trailer, according to spokesman Shane Reese.
Reese called it “basic level physics” to know that longer, heavier trucks would damage roads and negatively affect public safety. In Pennsylvania alone, there were 166 fatalities from crashes involving tractor trailers in 2012, he said.
“This is a very real problem,” he said. “The motoring public needs to know that they’re safety could be compromised with the acceptance of bigger, heavier trucks.”
Cumberland County Commissioner Jim Hertzler expressed similar concerns after a recent meeting with a coalition representative.
“I don’t have anything against the trucking industry, but I sure as heck don’t want to be driving from Enola to Carlisle every day looking at these things or trying to maneuver around one of these things,” Hertzler said.
Perhaps the most fully developed proposal for increasing truck size, championed by the Coalition for Transportation Productivity, would increase the weight limit for single tractor-trailer trucks from 80,000 pounds to 97,000 pounds and allow six-axle, 22-foot trucks.
Such trucks would have better weight distribution than traditional 18-wheel trucks with five axles, making them less damaging to roads and allowing them to break faster, according to John Runyan, a spokesman for the coalition.
Many companies could take advantage of the increased weight allowance without increasing truck sizes, since some 18-wheelers aren’t completely filled due to weight restrictions when carrying heavy products such as water and paper, he said. As a result, some shipping companies could see a 15 to 20 percent improvement in trucking productivity under the legislation, leading to associated cost savings to consumers, he said. That also would slow the rate of growth in trucking, limiting truck traffic and associated carbon emissions, he said.
The proposal seemed on a fast track to approval by the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee of the U.S. House in 2012 before then-freshman Congressman Lou Barletta, R-11, pushed for a delay.
Barletta said knowledge gained from his background in construction led him to question the bill even as he was being pressured to support it.
“Of all the issues that I was lobbied on, I don’t know if I was lobbied harder than to support increased truck size and weight. But my conscience really took over,” he said.
Barletta successfully proposed an amendment that postponed a decision on the bill until the completion of a federal study on the road costs and safety concerns associated with heavier trucks.
Supporters and opponents of increased truck weights both used previous safety studies to support their cases.
Runyan emphasized a Wisconsin study’s conclusion indicating there would be 90 fewer crashes annually in the state if such legislation would be enacted, and said the United Kingdom saw a reduction in fatal heavy truck crashes after adopting similar legislation.
Reese cited a study by the Multimodal Transportation and Infrastructure Consortium concluding that six or more axle trucks have an eight times greater fatality rate than those with five axles or fewer.
Reese and Runyan both explained the other side’s differing interpretation of the facts by focusing on their motives. Reese said the larger trucks are supported by those with an economic interest in them, while Runyan said the opposition is largely funded by the rail industry.
Roads and bridges
For Barletta, safety concerns don’t end with collisions. He’s concerned about the effect of larger trucks on roads and bridges, particularly in Pennsylvania, which has the most structurally deficient bridges in the United States, according to the American Road and Transportation Builders Association.
When persuading fellow committee members to postpone approval of larger trucks, Barletta said he asked them a question about the possible peril to bridges: “Were they comfortable putting their own family on bridges without knowing if there are any safety risks in doing it?”
While new bridges are designed to handle 90,000-pound vehicles, most Pennsylvania bridges currently in use were only designed to carry 72,000 pounds, said Erin Waters-Trasatt, deputy press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.
“If allowable truck weights were increased, we would need to analyze our affected bridges and roadways to see if the trucks can cross our bridges safely or if we would have to post any weight restrictions or redirect our investments,” she said. “The higher the weight is above the bridge’s design load, the faster deterioration occurs.”
However, Runyan said the coalition’s proposal would still allow states to forbid trucks from using unsafe bridges.
“Can this truck travel on every bridge in Pennsylvania? Probably not. But we’re not asking that this truck travel on every bridge,” he said.
Both state governments and the federal Department of Transportation would still have the ability to forbid the use of larger trucks if needed, he said. “There are a lot of fail-safe provisions in this bill,” he said.
Runyan said he understands that the legislation will not likely be passed until the new federal study is completed, which could be by the end of the year. Still, he’s optimistic about the results of the study, he said.
Barletta, however, said a positive recommendation from the study won’t automatically mean he supports the bill, especially since he thinks it may not be adequately assessing the effect of larger trucks on local roads.
“I’m going to look at it with a very careful viewpoint as well as my own experience in this line of work,” he said.