COVID-19 re-energizes truck size/weight battle

A coalition that includes owner-operators, large trucking companies and the freight railroads is looking to head off renewed efforts to permanently raise national truck size standards in the wake of COVID-19.

The Coalition Against Bigger Trucks (CABT) asserts that it is not opposed to the raising of weight limits by individual states aimed at making it easier for shippers and carriers to move essential freight during the pandemic.

“However, we do believe these provisions must be temporary and no efforts be made at the federal level to make these permanent,” the group told FreightWaves. The coalition also noted that supporters of longer and heavier trucks recently sent letters to Capitol Hill asking Congress to remove federal truck size and weight limits until the emergency declaration is lifted – efforts that Congress should reject, according to CABT. 

“With the FAST Act set to expire in September, this issue will once again be front and center. We also want to make certain that groups don’t push their agenda onto any infrastructure package or stimulus measure Congress might take up in response to COVID.”

Americans for Modern Transportation (AMT), which for years has sought a change in national truck standards to increase the length of twin trailers from 28 to 33 feet, is again pushing for the change. 

In a recent open letter to Congress and the Trump administration, AMT, whose members include less-than-truckload players FedEx [NYSE: FDX], UPS [NYSE: UPS], XPO Logistics [NYSE: XPO], Amazon [NASDAQ: AMZN] and YRC Freight [NASDAQ: YRCW], urged officials to consider the proposal as a way to encourage investment by manufacturers “and bring meaningful benefits that will help our country return to pre-coronavirus levels of production and consumption.”

AMT pointed out that such a change would come at no cost to taxpayers. “Our mission is more critical today than ever as the flow of foods and certain consumer goods, especially the last mile delivery to homes and stores, across our country is struggling to keep up due to high demand and driver shortages.”

CABT, whose members include truck safety advocates as well, has also gotten the attention of Congress. James McGovern, D-Mass., Chairman of the U.S. House Rules Committee, is garnering support for a formal letter to House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., urging the committee to reject truck size and weight changes.

In a draft version of his letter, McGovern cited a 2016 U.S. Department of Transportation study finding that double 33-foot trailers “would trigger more than a billion dollars in costs just to prevent catastrophic events on bridges,” and that increasing truck weight by 10% over the current 80,000-pound limit would increase bridge damage by 33%.

“Heavier and longer trucks would almost certainly mean more trucks on the road as freight is diverted onto our roads from other modes of shipping, creating billions of dollars in new repair and maintenance costs,” McGovern warned. The study also referred to tests that found heavier trucks have a 47% to 400% higher crash rate.

The rail industry, wary of changes that could give the trucking industry a competitive advantage, argues that fuel taxes and other highway-related fees paid by trucks “fall far short” of covering highway damage costs caused by trucks at their current size and weight limits.

“In contrast to trucks, freight railroads offer a sustainable and efficient way to move cargo across the country while operating on privately owned infrastructure they have invested billions into maintaining and upgrading,” according to the Association of American Railroads.

ACT has countered by pointing to studies that show twin 33-foot trailers can move the same amount of freight with 18% fewer truck trips, providing an estimated $2.6 billion annually in lower transportation costs for shippers in addition to faster delivery times.

To address safety concerns, ACT has maintained that its proposal to lengthen twin trailers will require that the cabs pulling them be equipped with four safety requirements: speed limiters set at 68 mph, onboard video event recorders, electronic stability control and automatic emergency braking.

Adopting twin 33-foot trailers in the long term, ACT contends, “would benefit consumers, increase safety, reduce congestion, and lower carbon emissions.”