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Doing the math

Shippers see increased weight limits for trucks

Don Meacham said the math is simple when it comes to increasing truck weight limits and the benefit that will have for shippers.

While it would require adding what he calls a "pup" to the back of the trailer his operation typically hauls, the purchase or lease of that equipment is essentially the only cost increase involved.

"The cost is minimal when you spread it out over the length of the lifetime of that trailer," Meacham said. "Your costs are essentially going to be the same as they are now. You do the math."

But increasing weight limits to 97,000 pounds from the current national limit of 80,000 pounds means Meacham's operation could haul roughly 20 percent more goods for just a slight uptick in cost. That's one of the reasons Wada Farms in Pingree, Idaho, is in favor of the weight increase.

Meacham, director of logistics for Wada Farms, said the operation already takes limited advantage of Idaho's increased weight limit of 105,000 pounds when shipping within the state and with some shipments to Salt Lake City.

"But we are shipping all over the United States," he said. "We would like to see that increase in all states."

Meacham and Wada Farms are not alone in their desire to see federal shipping weight limits increased for trucks. Numerous companies throughout the United States have pushed for the increase they say will create a more efficient shipping system. At the center of their argument are studies already performed that they believe show that higher weight limits can be done without increased safety risk or increased impact on infrastructure.

During the past few years, numerous bills have been introduced in both houses of Congress, attempting to increase trucking weight limits to 97,000 pounds. They have all come up against stiff opposition, and each has failed.

Among the latest of these bills is the Safe and Efficient Transportation Act, sponsored by Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho. It's one many are pointing to as the right way to go because it requires an additional axle in order to haul the 97,000 pounds.

Detractors, however, said the longer trucks are an increased safety risk and the heavier loads will excessively impact an already aging U.S. infrastructure.

Those within the potato industry appear to be on the same page when it comes to increasing federal weight limits to 97,000 pounds.

"We are for it," said Travis Blacker, president of the Idaho Grower Shippers Association. "There have been a lot of safety studies on this. They have done braking studies that show that these trucks stop quicker and straighter with the additional axle. It's adding stability and braking power."

When it comes to the impact the increased weight would have on the infrastructure, Blacker also turns to the math. The distribution of 80,000 pounds on each of a current truck's 18 tires is roughly 4,444 pounds. That compares with 4,409 pounds per tire when there are 22 tires carrying 97,000 pounds.

"It's slightly less than what we are doing now," he said. "If you do the math, the footprint on the highway for these larger loads is less."

Ryan Krabill, senior director for legislative and regulatory affairs for the National Potato Council, took that analysis a step further.

"An immediate benefit is you are reducing the number of trucks on the road," he said. "You are talking about 17 to 18 percent increase in weight. You are sending the same amount of freight on fewer trucks. With the additional axles, it lowers the pounds per square inch on the road. That's what triggers deterioration on the infrastructure."

He said the higher weight limit would also mean a slower increase in the number of trucks on the road. Outside of the infrastructure concerns, the question of the safety of the larger loads is one that Krabill calls "fear-based."

"It doesn't speak to the fact of the matter," he said. "The single most impactive issue with accidents involving these so-called heavier trucks is related to the truck miles on the road."

By increasing the weight limits, the number of truck hours, or the overall amount of time that trucks are on the roads will be reduced, he said.

"The fewer truck miles that are traveled will result in fewer incidents," Krabill said. "It will lower the accident rate, it will lower emissions, it lowers infrastructure costs."

Krabill said the time is now to make this happen, but he expressed little optimism that it will.

He said that Crapo's Safe and Efficient Transportation Act was just given a two-year reauthorization, meaning that if it is never reauthorized again, it will die in less than two years.

But conversations in Congress are calling for a three-year study to determine the feasibility of the increased weight load and its potential impact on safety and infrastructure.

"As an organization, we would like to see a study length that doesn't surpass the bill's reauthorization," Krabill said. "If there is going to be a study, and it's a two-year bill, then the study needs to be one year."

Otherwise, the study will surpass the bill's two-year reauthorization, and if the bill is not reauthorized again, it would push back legislative efforts for a weight limit increase another six to eight years.
Blacker wants to see the increase sooner rather than later as well, but he sees other needs looming on the horizon.

"If you look at trucking right now, it's kind of tight," he said. "As diesel prices continue to rise, it's forcing some of these smaller shipping companies out of business."

If something isn't done today to help smaller shippers remain in business, such as a weight increase that will help their profitability, they may not be around when the economy bounces back, when the need for more trucking companies hauling more loads will be imperative, Blacker said.

While Congress debates the safety of larger loads and the impact on infrastructure and talks about the need for studies on both topics, Krabill and Blacker said the studies have already been done and show that larger loads with an additional axle won't negatively impact safety or infrastructure.

More importantly, they said, other countries around the world have already done the studies and moved forward with the increased weight loads. The United States now lags behind the rest of the world in this area, they said.

"Canada can ship higher than us, and so can Mexico," Blacker said.

                                                                                                                                                              --By Jimmie Hancock, Spudman contributor

Photo by Bill Schaefer.

Originally posted Tuesday, May. 22, 2012

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