CABT report cites issues and challenges from bigger trucks but stakeholder opinions differ

By Jeff Berman, Group News Editor · August 3, 2020

While there are plenty of examples of trucks and trains working well together on the intermodal side, there are also more than a few examples of the two freight transportation modes being at odds, too.

One identifiable example of that relates to the years-long debate of increasing truck size and weight, in the form of a July report by Mark Burton, an economist for the Appalachian Transportation Institute, with more than 40 years of freight economics experience in rail and truck movement of goods, on behalf of the Alexandria, Va.-based Coalition Against Bigger Trucks (CABT).

Not surprisingly, the study makes the case that any increase in truck size and weight could have a stark negative impact for freight railroads, noting that “some scenarios will reduce intermodal traffic by 20-25 percent and railroad traffic by as much as 20 percent,” and adding that “more disruptive scenarios could reduce both intermodal and certain carload traffic by nearly 60 percent.”

Those are clearly staggering projections, to say the least, and CABT officials said that this study will be a key resource in the debates in both Congress and state legislatures over truck size and weight.

As for the debate, the study notes that on one end those making the case for longer and heavier trucks maintain that it will translate into fewer trucks on the road, that will, in turn, make roads more safe and result in less road and bridge damage. But the study has a decidedly different take, in that bigger trucks will mean more trucks on the roads, which will be unsafe while stressing U.S. infrastructure that is badly in need of repairs (to say the least).

The current federal law for truck size and weight, as the report notes, “limits the size of two trailers tethered together, so-called twin trailers or double trailers, to no more than 28 feet in length per trailer. Federal law limits the weight of any trailer to no more than 80,000 pounds on the interstates.”

The report offers up various takeaways that speak to the potential subsequent impacts of increasing truck size and weight, including:

raising truck and size limits would result in an increase in crash-related casualties, unaffordable wear and tear on highways and modal freight shifts that are less environmentally friendly compared to all-highway truck routes;

limiting intermodal truck-rail freight usage that it called contrary to national transportation policies that promote efficient truck and rail transportation partnerships; and

these changes could be “ruinous” to rail carriers and public sector policies focused on mitigating the growth of “truck-related harms”

Like the CABT, the Washington, D.C.-based Association for American Railroads (AAR) has long maintained its opposition to the possibility of increasing truck size and weight.

In the past, AAR has said that Congress already maintains “reasonable limits” on interstate highway system truck sizes at 80,000 pounds and no more than two 28-foot trailers for total length. And it has cited a 2016 USDOT study, which addressed the impact of increasing current truck size and weight limits, making the determination that there is not a need for federal policy changes on truck size and weights.

“These limits make good sense,” AAR said. “The fuel taxes and other highway-related fees that commercial trucks pay fall far short of covering the costs of the highway damage they cause. Any federal program that increases federal truck size limits will further subsidize commercial highway users at the expense of taxpayers, exacerbate deterioration of crumbling infrastructure and disadvantage a critical freight rail industry. Now proponents are pursuing avenues at the state and federal level to increase federal limits on truck weights from 80,000 pounds to at least 91,000 pounds — a jump of almost 14% in truck weight – while also pushing for Congress to force states to allow double-trailer Twin 33 trucks. Both would lead to more truck freight, which would further stress the nation’s deteriorating roads and bridges. At a time when policymakers continue to call for investment into and improvement of the nation’s infrastructure, knowingly taking steps to furthe r damage the nation’s federal highway system is misguided policy.”

What’s more, that AAR has long stated that increasing truck size and weight would come at the expense of billions to dollars to taxpayers in the form of damaged roads and bridges.

The added truck weight will further destroy precious national infrastructure and cost taxpayers dearly and allowing trucks to be 14% heavier would be a fundamental change to national policy, according to AAR.

But advocates of larger trucks have a different take, with Americans for Modern Transportation (AMT) a concern comprised of shippers, carriers, and retailers focused on improving safety and efficiency of the U.S. transportation system, and modernizing the delivery products throughout the U.S. have long called for policies to improve vehicle safety, reduce congestion, lower fuel consumption, and address freight capacity, things they said can be addressed by raising the national twin trailer standard from 28 feet to 33 feet.

“The benefits of this policy change would immediately improve operations across the nation’s freight network,” AMT explained to the House Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development (THUD) Appropriations subcommittee in a May 2018 letter. “First, the safety of twin 33-foot trailers is proven, and research has shown that twin 33-foot trailers are more stable and less likely to rollover than twin 28-foot trailers. Second, twin 33-foot trailers will reduce congestion. Without any changes to federal weight restrictions, authorizing twin 33-foot trailers to operate on the national highway network – only where twin 28-foot trailers currently operate – would result in 3.1 billion fewer vehicle miles traveled, 4,500 fewer annual truck crashes, and 53.2 million hours saved due to less congestion. Third, this creative capacity solution would also reduce wear and tear on existing infrastructure.”

Both sides make fair and valid points in supporting their cases for, or against, increasing truck size and weights. With 2020 being an election year, and a year that has truly been unlike any other, it remains to be seen how things progress from here. But it is definitely worth following, no matter how long it takes.

August 3, 2020