It looks like 80,000 pound total weight limit will be with us for quite some time. The House had originally included a provision in its never-passed highway bill to allow states to approve 97,000 pound vehicles with an extra (sixth) axle. It never got out of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee which voted 33 to 22 to study the issue for the next three years rather than vote on it. The Senate never included higher weight limits in its highway hill. The alternative proposal, an 88,000 pound limit with the current 5-axle configuration, never gained traction.

The main support for higher weight limits comes from shippers who want to be able to reduce transportation costs per unit of product. The Coalition for Transportation Productivity, which represents about 200 shippers and carriers pushed hard for the legislation. NASSTRAC’s Stand Up For Trucking Fly-In on February 1 included 170 executives taking the message to DC that we need greater productivity and that larger trucks are just as safe as 80,000 pound trucks. Just one day after the fly in, the proposal was stripped from the House bill. The Coalition argues that higher weight limits means fewer trucks on the road which means great safety, less congestion, and less highway wear and tear. They also point out that Canada and most of Europe allow 97,000 pound vehicles with no impairment of safety or damage to highways and bridges.

While the ATA claims to support higher weights, they are not willing to expend political capital for the cause and many of their member carriers oppose the higher limits. In fact the ATA and the Association of American Railroads sent a joint letter to House members asking them to oppose higher weight limits. For carriers, the downside is the need to invest more money up-front in trailers and tires and spend more on maintenance, but their customers that cube out will not benefit so will not be willing to pay more. The carriers also feel they never got any additional money as they moved from 45’ to 48’ to 53’ trailers so are gun shy about paying up front this time around.

The opponents are lined up to fight higher weights, starting with the railroads who are willing to expend political and monetary capital to fight any relaxation of weight limits. Safety groups, OOIDA, and organized labor are also adamantly opposed, claiming lost jobs, more accidents, and infrastructure damage would result from the higher weight limits.

It looks like this issue is dead for quite some time to come.

The Truckload Carriers Association has come out in favor of raising the gross vehicle weight (GVW) limit from 80,000 pounds to 88,000 pounds while continuing to utilize 5-axle tractor-trailer combinations. The American Trucking Associations (ATA), on the other hand, is supporting a 97,000 pound GVW with a 6-axle combination that adds a third axle for the trailer. It is safe to assume that the Association of American Railroads will oppose both ideas. The TCA’s position is easy to understand. Truckload carriers do not want to buy new 3-axle trailers or convert existing equipment to that configuration because the cost of doing so will not be recouped through higher rates to haul freight. Tire maintenance will rise and fuel economy will fall with the 3rd trailer axle. Only shippers with heavy, dense freight will benefit from the 97,000 pound limit and they will be willing to pay more as long as the cost per unit is less, but shippers with lighter weight products will not pay more for something that has no incremental value to them despite the fact that the carriers’ cost has increased. Carriers will not want the complexity of running two different trailer types as that will only lead to greater empty miles to get the right trailer on the right load.

The ATA-supported 97,000 pound limit is more beneficial to the heavy-weight shippers and also has the benefit of not increasing highway wear and tear as the extra weight is spread over an extra axle. The only problem is that this will have lukewarm support from the truckload carriers that have to shell out the money to buy the new trailers. It may take a long time to see any realized benefits other than in shorter haul and closed loop environments where the more expensive equipment can be dedicated to customers willing to pay for the extra hauling capacity.

You can read more about the TCA’s position at The Trucker and Transport Topics.

We know that everything coming out of Washington (CSA 2010, hours of service, cap and tax) is driving up the cost of freight transportation, so we need some productivity gains to offset the cost increases to remain competitive. We also know that our highways and bridges are in terrible shape and can’t take much more stress.

With some reservations due to highway wear, I think we should pursue both changes. The 88,000 pound TCA proposal provides immediate productivity gains to offset the rapidly approaching shortage of TL drivers and other 2011 cost increases. The 97,000 pound limit would provide great productivity gains in dedicated and closed loop environments, but would not need to be adopted by over-the-road truckers to remain competitive. Both proposals mean fewer trucks and drivers are required to transport the nation’s freight and that means less highway congestion and lower costs.

The debate over truck size and weight limits hit the mainstream business press this week with an excellent article in the Wall Street Journal that can be read in full by subscribers on the WSJ web site at: WSJ Truck Size

The article is not limited to trucking, also referring to longer trains that save fuel and reduce track wear and tear and deeper ports to accommodate larger container ships. The main focus of the article is a push by Kraft Foods Inc. and a coalition of 150 companies lobbying Congress for a 97,000 pound gross vehicle weight limit up from the current 80,000 pound limit, which has been in place since 1974. The idea is to reduce total truck trips, thus reducing highway congestion and fuel consumption, but protecting road wear by adding a third axle on the trailer. Efforts are also focused on expanding the opportunities for double 53′ trailers and triple 28′ trailers, again focusing on greater productivity, lower costs, less fuel consumption, less traffic, and lower greenhouse gasses. A western states governors’ group estimates that miles traveled by heavy trucks could be cut by 25% with greater use of longer combination vehicles (LCVs).

As usual, the anti-truck lobby is strongly opposed citing safety concerns that cannot be backed up with any facts. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D., N.J.) and Rep Jim McGovern (D., Mass.) have filed legislation to ban bigger and heavier trucks.

Transport Topics 8/5/2010 2:00:00 PM

Measure Backed by ATA, Shippers’ Group

A trio of senators introduced a bill that would allow states to increase the maximum weight for trucks operating on their interstates beyond the federal limit of 80,000 pounds.

Sens. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) said in introducing the Safe Efficient Transportation Act that states would be allowed to "opt in" and increase their weight limits to 97,000 pounds.

The legislation is identical to a bill introduced in the House last March by Reps. Michael Michaud (D-Maine) and Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio) and would require the new, heavier trucks to have six axles in order to diffuse the added weight.

"This bipartisan legislation strikes the right balance between productivity and safety," Kohl said in a statement.

The bill is backed by American Trucking Associations and the Coalition for Transportation Productivity, a shippers’ group, the two said in statements Thursday.

"ATA supports a number of reforms to federal truck size and weight regulations as part of our Sustainability Initiative," said ATA President Bill Graves.

"More efficient trucks, like those allowed under this legislation, will significantly reduce the trucking industry’s carbon output," he said in a statement.