May/June 2014
Heavier Loads By Jimmy Hancock

Proponents of increasing truck load limits on interstate highways are in for the long haul, according to industry analysts.

Introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Safe and Efficient Transportation Act of 2013 (SETA), would increase gross vehicle weight to 97,000 pounds from the current limit of 80,000 pounds.

Even if a U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) study concludes that increasing truck load limits is safe, Chris Voigt, executive director of the Washington State Potato Commission, said any actual change could be years away.

“There will still be a long road to travel,” Voigt said.

“The first obstacle is Congress in general right now,” Voigt said. “It’s hard to get anything through Congress. There is so much partisan bickering, it’s hard to get Democrats and Republicans to agree on anything. It’s been that way for several years.”

Voigt said the railroad lobby would be the biggest obstacle to keep Congress from coming to an agreement.

The railroad wants to get as much shipping business as possible,” he said. “If you are suddenly able to put more on trucks, they are going to see it as taking business from them. That’s just not the case. The railroads already have more than they can currently ship.”

The heavier loads, if approved, would be carried by the same trucks with an additional axle on the rear end. Trucks carrying the additional weight would have six axles instead of the traditional five. The additional axle would better distribute the load, making the truck more stable, and giving it an additional set of brakes, increasing braking ability.

The biggest potential change, however, could be the reduced number of trucks on the road. Trucks that can carry roughly 20 percent more product could translate to a 20 percent reduction in the number of trucks on the highways.

“If you talk to safety and transportation experts, they will say that if you can eliminate 20 percent of the trucks from the roads, you are going to make it a safer highway because there will be fewer opportunities for accidents,” Voigt said.

The DOT study currently underway was commissioned with the passing of the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act. The study is expected to be completed this fall, according to Paul Bleiberg, legislative director for Rep. Reid Ribble, R-Wisconsin.

“Once that study has been completed, I’m hopeful that we can have a data-driven debate on this issue that results in the first truck productivity reforms in decades,” Ribble said in an email.

Ribble, a co-author and one of 18 co-sponsors of SETA, said he believes increasing the weight load limits will also help shippers move their products more efficiently in addition to decreasing the number of trucks on the road.

Don Meacham, director of logistics for Wada Farms in its Idaho Falls, Idaho, office, said that better efficiency is exactly why his operation supports increasing weight load limits.

“If you increase the weight limit, it can reduce the number of trucks on the road,” he said. “Almost one in five trucks wouldn’t have to be on the road. You will also have savings in fuel, in equipment, and in labor.”

Meacham also believes the technology is there to enable the changes. Like any other industry, trucking has seen its share of technological advances over the past few decades.

“We definitely have the technology out there to make the trucks safer as far as brakes and speed,” he said. “It’s been proven that the distribution of weight on the truck, won’t tear up the roads.”

Voigt said the biggest issue is the impact the additional weight could have on bridges. Throughout the U.S., bridges are aging and states are becoming increasingly concerned about their bridges’ capacity for handling the weight increase. Better distribution of weight is not going to get around the fact that the trucks will be 17,000 pounds heavier.

But working around aging bridges, unable to handle the increased weight, is among the reasons that the weight limit increase worked into SETA is not mandatory.

“Every state can make the decision whether to allow the heavier trucks on their highways,” Voigt said. “This is not mandatory. It really puts the decision in the hands of the state transportation departments.”

Voigt said each state would need to assess its particular highways, roads and bridges and come to a decision as to where it will or will not allow the increased weight to be carried. That’s something most transportation departments already do, he said.

While Voigt believes that the legislative process of increasing weight load limits could take years to come to fruition, Travis Blacker, industry relations director for the Idaho Potato Commission (IPC), said he is more optimistic that the federal government will move relatively quickly.

However, Blacker does agree with Voigt that it is at the state level where the process will lag.

“The states will have to individually look at their infrastructure,” he said. “It’s one of those things that will take a while.”

The IPC supports the increased weight load limits because it believes it will help the industry, Blacker said.

“Transportation is getting tight,” Blacker said, referring to its financial viability. “This new law, if it passes, enables us to load and use fewer trucks.”

He says most people who have safety concerns are under the impression it means larger trucks, or is similar to the triple-trailer issues in other states. That’s not the case.

“They are the same length and the same width,” he said of the trucks that would carry the 97,000-pound loads. “We will just be able to utilize the space that currently goes unused.”

Voigt said using the entire truck is good for everyone.

“You are able to ship more stuff, cheaper with less (traffic) congestion,” he said. “It’s also safer. With the extra axle, you can increase braking power. If you can reduce the truck miles traveled, you are going to create a safer highway. There are a lot of pluses.”

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