With just a few days to go before its scheduled expiration on Sept. 30, the U.S. House of Representatives extended the current highway bill, the “Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users” (SAFETEA-LU). The House was unable to consider its successor, the Safe and Efficient Transportation Act of 2009, HR1799, with its many provisions before the fiscal year ended.
The three-month extension provided continuing funding for current programs paid from the Highway Trust Fund. Congress' extension did not make any policy changes or authorize any new projects. The extension allows Congress to consider new programs, initiatives, and projects in the next Highway Bill.
One of the most controversial changes Congress is considering is increasing gross vehicle weight limits on interstate and federal highways. The change would increase the limit to 97,000 pounds. If the provision becomes law, it will be the first significant change in truck weight law since 1982.
Before the change, there was no uniformity across the nation. Illinois, Missouri, and Arkansas limited vehicle weight on five-axle combinations (tractor-trailer) to 73,280 pounds, while all other states allowed 80,000. If truckers wanted to carry an 80,000-pound load legally from Boston or Cleveland to San Francisco or Seattle, they would have to route through Louisiana to avoid overweight fines. The 1982 law gave the trucking industry uniformity in exchange for an extra 5-cent a gallon fuel tax to fund highway construction.
For and against
The weight increase is supported by the American Trucking Associations, along with a host of other organizations, trade groups, and businesses known as the Coalition for Transportation Productivity (CTP). Joining CTP are the National Industrial Transportation League, the National Private Truck Council, many trade associations, shippers and carriers, and even the San Joaquin Valley Unified Air Pollution Control District, responsible for air quality in California's largest agricultural region.
The CTP and other supporters lobby that the allowable weight increase would reduce the number of trucks on the highways and result in reduced emissions.
Opposing the proposal are the Teamsters and the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association. Both groups are concerned about safety and losing jobs. These are joined by various citizen safety groups that fear crashes between passenger cars and more massive trucks. Railroads also oppose the increase.
Under the proposed legislation, trucks would not be dimensionally larger, just heavier. To carry the heavier loads, trucks would also be required to have an additional axle to support the added weight. Currently, maximum allowable weights are 12,000 pounds on the steer axle, and 34,000 pounds on the drive and trailer tandems (set of two-axles together). If trailers have spread axles separated by more than 10 feet, each axle may carry 20,000 pounds, but the 80,000-pound gross combination weight limit still applies.
With 51,000 pounds per tridem (set of three axles together) vehicles would still be loaded to 17,000 pounds per axle. Axle weight is a determining factor in highway wear. Since the proposed rule would not increase the per-axle load limit, truckers would add a sixth axle that increases gross weight to 97,000 pounds. There should be no additional damage to roads.
Trailer axle assemblies weigh between 500 and 650 pounds, and four aluminum wheels and tires add 704 pounds. So most rigs will add about 1350 pounds or less to tare weight, but you'll pick up a net 15,650 pounds of cargo.
If fleet mangers switch tandem tires to wide base singles, like Michelin X-One or Bridgestone Greatec, they'll gain another 188 pounds per axle. Those who make the change will also improve fuel mileage because trucks will have only half the number of sidewalls to flex.
Changes for producers
Most of the discussion concerns the over-the-road trucking industry. But how does the proposed change affect concrete producers?
Much of the concrete industry will benefit significantly from the increased truck weights. Precast/pre-stressed producers could benefit. Ready-mix and precast producers will be more efficient in their bulk cement, sand, and aggregate hauling.
The House is currently considering the Safe and Efficient Transportation Act of 2009 (HR1799). Now is the time to express your support or opposition to the legislation. Congress will vote on the weight limits before its Christmas recess, unless it extends SAFETEA-LU for another three months.
To monitor the status of the proposed ruling, visit the Coalition for Transportation Productivity's Web site at www.transportationproductivity.org.
Paul Abelson is a former director of the Technology and Maintenance Council of the American Trucking Associations and is currently on the Board of Truck Writers of North America. Efirstname.lastname@example.org.