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Heavier trucks on open roads?

By Staff | Nov 27, 2009

Trucking firms throughout Iowa, including those that haul agricultural products, are getting behind a U.S. House measure that, if approved, would increase the load limit of trucks on highway from 80,000 to 97,000 pounds.

It would also require such vehicles to add a sixth axle for better load stability and stopping capacity.

The bill, HR 1799, was introduced last March and may make it to a floor vote this congressional session. It’s not been an easy road for the bill, with opposition from groups concerned over public safety and the environment. Driver’s unions and railroad interests have also weighed in against HR 1799.

Shouldering the load

John Runyan, executive director of the Coalition for Transportation Productivity, based in Washington, D.C., which supports the bill, said that a 2009 Wisconsin road use study indicates heavier loads would actually lead to less interstate maintenance because there would be fewer trucks on the road.

“This also will benefit bridges,” Runyan said, adding that a larger licensing fee would be collected by participating states and that those funds would be reserved for bridge repair. The CTP is an advocacy group of more than 100 shippers and consumer groups, plus the American Trucking Associations.

Currently there are an estimated 80,000 trucks on the U.S. interstate highway system daily, Runyan said. With fewer trucks on the road, he noted, citing the Wisconsin study, the increased weight limit would result in a savings of 2 billion gallons of diesel annually, a drop of 19 percent, because of fewer trucks.

In addition, he said the Wisconsin study notes there would have been 90 fewer heavy truck accidents if the heavier weight limits were in place during 2006.

“Trucks will be able to stop in the same distance they do now with the heavier weight, once the extra axle is fitted,” Runyan claimed.

Opposition collision

However, self-pronounced watchdog groups like Truck Safety Coalition, which is comprised of Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways, and Parents Against Tired Truckers, are suspicious that this increase is only another step for the trucking industry in getting even heavier trucks in the future.

They have an opposition measure in the House – HR 1618 – preserving the existing size and weights of trucks on the national highway system.

Both groups claim that heavier trucks are not fuel efficient, citing a number of studies to support their claims. They also doubt that HR 1799, if passed, would result in fewer trucks on the road.

“Past increases in truck size and weight have not resulted in fewer trucks, fewer trips, or fewer miles traveled,” reads a TSC press release issued earlier this year.

TSC declined to comment last Monday on this issue saying that due to the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, no spokesmen were available.

Burning less diesel fuel

If the next Congress approves this increased weight limit, Runyan said, then companies like Kraft Foods would lower diesel consumption by 6.6 million gallons. MillerCoors would have a similar savings.

Opponents to the new weight limits say extra weight would take longer for trucks to stop.

“This would be true without the extra axle,” acknowledged Runyan.

He also expects that despite rail transportation’s expected growth over the next 25 years, companies would still utilize truck transports, because rail companies are consolidating their access points and terminals. “(Shippers) have to drive farther to get their shipments to the railroads,” Runyan said, “and farther to pick them up.”

Runyan also said that the extra axle “would not change the truck’s footprint. Most existing trucks can be retrofitted for the extra support for $6,000 to $8,000.” But most likely, he said, it would mean phasing in new equipment with the extra axle being installed at the factory.

“Each state will have the option to approve the measure,” Runyan said. “Maine is currently (proposing) a one-year pilot program allowing the heavier weight with the extra axle.”

Runyan noted that truck transportation is expected to continue to grow during the next two decades. “So although the actual number of trucks on the road will not be reduced,” he said, “there won’t be as many on the road as there are now.”

Soybean group on board

The Soy Transportation Coalition is also onboard with the heavier weights with an extra axle proposal.

Mike Steenhoek, the soy coalition’s executive director, housed in the new Iowa Soybean Association’s headquarters in Ankeny, said that earlier this year the soy haulers’ group funded its own safety study, funded by soybean checkoff dollars, which resulted in a favorable conclusion.

The coalition consists of soy haulers from Iowa, Nebraska, the Dakotas, Illinois and Ohio, and watches issues in all venues of moving soybeans, including truck, rail and maritime issues.

“The soybean industry is a global one,” Steenhoek said. “If everything we produced was consumed next door, we wouldn’t need transportation.”

The coalition’s study showed, Steenhoek said, “that there is as much stopping power with the sixth axle at 97,000 pounds, as there is with five axles under 80,000 pound loads.

“That was important for us to understand, we won’t promote something that would be less safe.”

He added that the American Automobile Association has determined that the number of truck accidents with other vehicles is due more to the number of trucks on the road, rather than how heavy they weigh.

“The real red flag is the impact on bridges,” Steenhoek said. “Bridges are susceptible to weight, no matter how many axles. HR1799 allows for a “heavy truck tax” that would be setaside for bridge maintenance.

“But in reality,” Steenhoek said, “if a bridge cannot support it, then a semi should not be on the bridge.”

With the extra weight allowance, Steenhoek noted, many producers could eliminate an entire truck run per harvest day in getting grain to storage.

Although Iowa gives producers an annual weight limit exemption for hauling heavier loads of harvested grain, “not all states do that,” Steenhoek said.

Contact Larry Kershner at (515) 573-2141, ext. 453 or by e-mail at kersh@farm-news.com.

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