A renewed push to add heavier trucks to U.S. highways has divided the trucking industry.
The battle pits shippers – especially haulers of food and agricultural commodities – who see heavier loads as a pathway to greater profits against the industry’s biggest independent truckers trade group, which believes trucks carrying heftier cargo will put too much wear and tear on an already stressed highway infrastructure.
In a May 26 letter to Congress, more than 80 agricultural groups and shippers proposed a 15-year pilot program to study increasing the gross vehicle weight, or GVW, limit to allow 91,000 pounds on federal interstate highways. The current limit is 80,000 pounds, but there are some exceptions.
Several states have grandfathered rights allowing truckers to legally operate above 80,000 pounds on interstate highways, dating back to the establishment of federal weight limits in 1956. Additionally, 31 states allow trucks over 80,000 pounds on federal interstates under special permits and exemptions or on designated corridors.
“While significant progress has been made in vehicle safety and pavement technology, it has been 35 years since the U.S. updated GVW limits on Federal Interstate Highways,” the coalition said in its letter.
The group suggested a change in semi-truck trailer combination design to handle the extra weight. Rigs would go from a five-axle, 18-wheel configuration to a six-axle, 22-wheel architecture. Such a move would improve shipping efficiency by transporting more product with fewer trucks, the group said.
The coalition proposed a 15-year pilot program that would enable carriers to recoup the investment in buying trailers equipped with an extra axle. That’s the average life span of a commercial trailer. They asked for the program to be included in the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development 2018 fiscal year appropriations bill.
It would be a voluntary program that would allow 10 states to opt-in to “collect additional safety data regarding the GVW and axle configuration of commercial trucks involved in serious accidents,” the group said.
If the weight limit was lifted nationwide, U.S. companies would reduce their logistics expenses by $5.6 billion annually, said James Sembrot, senior director of logistics strategy for Anheuser-Busch, which has 750 trucks in its U.S. fleet.
Trucks equipped to carry the greater weight “will contribute to many improvements and efficiencies for the company,” Sembrot told Trucks.com. Increased “weights will result in fewer gas emissions and less fuel consumed helping Anheuser-Busch move toward our global emission reduction goals.”
The beer company believes such a move would also reduce congestion at loading docks because there would be fewer vehicles, but they would be hauling bigger loads, he said. Reducing loading dock delays would help truckers stay in compliance with rules that limit their work day to 14 hours, including 11 hours of driving time.
The Soy Transportation Coalition, a farming trade group of soybean associations in 13 states, also is pushing for the change.
“We are producing more, manufacturing more and the commonsense solution is to expand the weight capacity of semis,” Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition, told Trucks.com.
He said carrying heavier loads won’t hurt traffic safety.
The stopping distance on a semi-tractor trailer combo equipped with the sixth axle is one foot less than a five-axle, 80,000-pound truck, Steenhoek said. Moreover, if increased weight limits reduced the number of trucks on the road there would be fewer collisions between big rigs and passenger vehicles, he said.
Increasing the GVW would keep tractor-trailers from traveling on sometimes perilous state and county roads by allowing them onto the federal interstate system.
About 60 percent of all fatal crashes involving large trucks occurred on rural roads, while 25 percent occurred on rural or urban interstate highways in 2015, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
Most truckers operating in grandfathered states allowing GVW weights above 80,000 pounds on federal highways are operating safely, said Joe Rajkovacz, director of governmental affairs for the Western States Trucking Association. He believes weight restrictions could be lifted without risking highway safety.
“There is resentment from those truck operators when their business model is cast by bureaucrats in Washington as being unsafe,” Rajkovacz said.
But he conceded that “this is a very divisive issue within the industry.”
Previous efforts have failed, most recently when Congress rejected an amendment in 2015 proposed by Rep. Reid J. Ribble (R-Wis.) – known as the Safe Trucking Act – to permit 91,000-pound trucks on interstate highways.
“Increasing truck weight limits would be dangerous to all motorists,” Norita Taylor, spokeswoman for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, told Trucks.com.
Taylor also questioned whether increasing the weight limit is a ploy designed by shippers to add an additional 11,000 pounds onto trucks without paying more in freight costs.
“Will truckers be paid more for hauling more?” Taylor asked.
Anheuser-Busch said that is something it would consider.
“We anticipate carriers will price any changes to their costs into their bids,” Sembrot said.
The Truck Safety Coalition also opposes the proposed weight increase pilot program.
The group said it’s the wrong time to increase truck weights because of safety concerns and the poor condition of the nation’s highway infrastructure.
“Pilot programs are not a smart way to go about increasing truck weights because you are putting anyone at risk that’s part of this pilot and once it gets started, it’s almost impossible to ever end it,” John Lannen, executive director for the Truck Safety Coalition, told Trucks.com.
Truck crashes, fatalities and injuries have all increased since 2009, Lannen said.
The number of heavy-duty trucks involved in fatal crashes was 4,050 in 2015, an 8 percent jump compared with the previous year, according to FMCSA statistics.
“You have an increasing bad trend in crashes and there really isn’t the data to support increasing truck weights,” he said.
While the American Trucking Associations said its policy “supports modernizing truck productivity laws,” it’s current advocacy agenda is focused elsewhere, including “supporting enactment of a new infrastructure investment package,” Sean McNally, spokesman for the trucking trade group, told Trucks.com.
The Trump administration has proposed spending $1 trillion on infrastructure, but has not introduced a specific plan for repairing the nation’s roads and bridges.
The U.S. has underfunded its highway system for years, resulting in a $836 billion backlog for highway and bridge capital needs, the American Society of Professional Engineers, or ASCE, said in its 2017 Infrastructure Report Card.