T&I Committee Rejects Truck Weight Reform

On February 2, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee amended and reported out its Surface Transportation Reauthorization bill, known formally as the American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act (HR 7), striking out, by amendment, language which would have authorized states to have the right to opt in to a 97,000-pound / 6-axle configuration for conventional semi-trucks, the terms FRA and our allies in other organizations and coalitions had advocated.  The amendment to strike the provision authorizing truck weight (and truck size) flexibility, which T&I Chairman John Mica (R-Florida) had included in the Chairman’s Mark, substitutes a provision for a three-year study of the safety and road-and-bridge wear impacts of a variety of size and weight configurations, as well as any changes in patterns of freight hauling, which such changes might bring about.

This amendment, introduced by Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pennsylvania) and Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Illinois), was an obvious attempt by railroads and certain aligned interests to put trucking productivity reform beyond the reach of policymakers for as long as possible.

For those who observed the 18-hour mark-up of the 800+-page House bill (via webcast), the half-hour debate over the size-and-weight provision was clearly the most hotly disputed “lightning rod.”  Our champions in the House, defending the Chairman’s Mark language—Representatives Mike Michaud (D-Maine), Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio), Bud Shuster (R-Pennsylvania), Don Young (R-Alaska), Frank LoBiondo (R-New Jersey), Reid Ribble (R-Wisconsin), and Frank Guinta (R-New Hampshire)—reiterated that the question of the impacts of truck weight reform had accumulated an objectively formulated body of study, based on both theory and practical observation, that left very few points of uncertainty about impacts.  Rep. Michaud pointed to the 33% decline in truck-related accidents during Maine’s 2010 “pilot” program, as well as to the similar results of the 2006 observations of a similar configuration in the United Kingdom.  Rep. Costello inaccurately characterized these studies, and the affirmative studies conducted by the Wisconsin and Minnesota Departments of Transportation, as “industry funded” and stated that he could match them up with studies demonstrating the opposite—without, however, venturing to cite them.

The amendment to substitute this study for truck size-and-weight reform passed the Committee by a vote of 33 to 22.  Individual Committee members’ votes on this Amendment (“Yea” means substituting a three-year study; “Nay” means including reform in the House bill) are presented at http://Republicans.transportation.house.gov/Media/file/112th/highways/2012-02-02-Roll-Call-Barletta-Amendment-24%20(2).pdf

In addition to the all-out campaign against trucking productivity on the part of rail, several factors contributed to this setback:

  • The Committee’s decision to introduce truck weight and truck size reform into a single provision gave Rep. Costello the opportunity to project images of triple-trailer trucks “as long as a 737-700 aircraft” and imprint that allegation against the case for truck weight reform, which does not change a semi-truck’s configuration, apart from the introduction of the additional axle.
  • The Committee draft’s proposal to delegate to the Secretary of Transportation the responsibility to set an appropriate user fee for trucks under the program may have alarmed some conservative Committee members who feared giving a Cabinet officer authority, in essence, to set a vehicle use tax.
  • The spectacle of well-informed Committee members referencing credible studies, and Rep. Costello’s disputing them, and hearsay statements from other Committee members about configurations that may or may not be in common use in other parts of the world, as well as the absence of members able to cite studies in support of the long-combination-vehicle configuration, served to create a spectacle of confusion that gave wavering members the cover they needed to vote to commission a study that is supposed to put all skepticism to rest.

However, the most significant factor influencing acceptance of this disastrous amendment was the railroad lobby, which is well-funded and views improved trucking productivity as a threat to its monopoly domination of certain marginal routes, in which more productive trucks might create competitive pressures.  In order to preserve that domination, it has established and funded a “front group,” Coalition Against Bigger Trucks, which disingenuously claims to represent the public interest.

On the day before the Committee vote, February 1, over 150 pro-trucking people, including FRA members, Coalition for Transportation Productivity members, AgHaul members, and American Trucking Associations members, covered Capitol Hill, making congressional contacts, arguing the case for trucking productivity, and obtaining statements of commitment from House offices.  At the same time, in the hallways and elevators, our team met members of the rail lobby putting their influence at work, including the significant tactic of shuttling around local law-enforcement officials claiming to speak for a rubber-meets-road expertise on truck safety.

What’s next for truck weight reform?

Short of waiting for the outcome of the study—which may be three years out but more likely five, since more than a literature review is called for—FRA and our allies are considering several options.

  • Working with the Committee leadership to intervene meaningfully during consideration of the Surface Transportation Bill on the House Floor later this month.  For various reasons—including the ideological composition of the House Rules Committee, which would influence that option—working for significant improvements by that means would be both difficult and risky, but the option is not yet off the table.
  • Monitoring the progress of the House bill, whatever its outcome on the Floor, in conference with the Senate. Depending on the fortunes of that process—which may render a five-year bill, a two-year bill, or failure to agree—new timelines and policy parameters may emerge.
  • Continuing to promote the benefits of the provisions of the Safe and Efficient Transportation Act and identifying other policy venues.

At a minimum, we strongly urge all FRA members to continue to advocate the provisions of the Safe and Efficient Transportation Act (HR 763 / S 747) in anticipation of a new opportunity.