With all the talk pro and con about the proposed legislation that could lead to heavier trucks on the nation’s interstate system (and perhaps U.S. and state highways as well), we thought it prudent to check in with some motor carrier friends.
One such carrier we called was U.S. Xpress, and subsequently the telephone rang.
It was Pat Quinn, the highly-respected co-chairman and president at the Chattanooga-based carrier and former chairman of both the American Trucking Associations and the Truckload Carriers Association, the two leading trucking associations who also happened to have dissimilar views on the subject.
The ATA modified its policy when Quinn was chairman.
He recalled the vote was something like 60-40.
“It was far less than unanimous, which I think shows the industry is divided,” Quinn said. “The TCA has had repeated votes that have been 48 percent to 52 percent. It almost carried but not quite. Truthfully, if you can’t get something closer to a two-thirds or better majority it’s kind of hard to say you have a policy change. You can change it, but the next meeting you can change it back. There’s a lot of parts to the size and weight issue and I think the ATA and TCA are in agreement on everything except the 97,000 pounds.”
There were two primary differences between the policy approved under Quinn and the ATA’s previous policy, according to Darrin Roth, ATA’s director of highway operations:
• The previous policy supported a minimum 48-foot trailer length with no maximum length; the new policy called for federal law to be brought up to modern stands to ensure the continued protection of flow of interstate commerce by changing the minimum trailer length limits to 53 feet. In addition, ATA now supports capping trailer length at 53 feet except in states where longer trailers are currently allowed, and
• The previous policy supporting existing axle weight limits and bridge formula limits while the new policy supported six axles and a maximum 97,000 pounds, which exceeds bridge formula limits. However, the current policy does say that “while there are potential negative cost impacts for bridges, the ability of states to regulate routes of operation should allow them to minimize these costs, and may actually produce cost savings if heavier vehicles shift from secondary roads to interstate highways that have stronger bridges.”
The legislation recently introduced in Congress pretty much conforms to what the ATA policy says, Quinn said.
“I think a lot of people get really, really emotional about this without understanding that it isn’t to impose a national 97,000-pound weight. It’s to lift a freeze to allow the states individually to consider whether they think it wise to adopt a higher weight limit than 80,000 pounds and on what roads they would choose to do it,” Quinn said. “Somehow they [opponents] think if it passes it would be mandatory on all states and that’s not the intent of any legislation because the theory is the states know best what roads and bridges could handle that and do it safely and without structural damage.”
The respect that Quinn has earned in the industry was manifested in his appointment to the the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission, which held meetings and hearings for two years discussing the future of the nation’s infrastructure. The Commission’s Report to Congress was issued in January 2008.
“What I found out on that Congressional committee is that many states have something substantially higher than the 80,000-pound limit on interstates. In Wisconsin, you have all these paper trucks and log trucks that go on the state highways because they can’t go on the interstate because of the weight limit,” Quinn told us. “When I learned more about it, you actually find that many states were putting these heavier loads on less structurally satisfactory highways. I didn’t know that happened. That was news to me. Most of them are asphalt, not concrete; the bridges aren’t supported as well they go through the center of town.”
Quinn noted that professionals in the road construction business say that you actually have less pounds per square inch of pressure with a sixth axle at 97,000 pounds than you do with a five-axle at 80,000 pounds. So the weight disbursement is not as potentially damaging as an 80,000-pound vehicle, not that every five axle vehicle is always carrying 80,000 pounds, because we know that’s not true either.”
A lot of shippers are behind the heavier truck proposal, Quinn said.
“At U.S. Xpress. we’ve gone to some really light-weight trailers for some of the beverage people,” he said. “We’re now scaling 50,000-pound payload that’s still reaching 80,000 pounds. We’ve stripped down the day cabs. We’ve taken seats out of them. We’ve taken everything out of them that’s not required by safety or operating efficiency to reduce the weight and increase the payload.”
At U.S. Xpress, Quinn estimates that in the area of generic freight, only 15-20 percent of the trucks carry a full 80,000 pounds.
In many cases, a trailer cubes out before it weighs out, he said.
Even if the legislation passes, Quinn doesn’t see states rushing to allow heavier trucks.
“It would be so slow in implementation because it’s going to take the states a long time to figure out whether or not they should do this and where they should do it,” he said. “Let the states figure out what’s best for them and leave the federal government out of it.”
Neither is there a groundswell among carrier for heavier trucks.
“I don’t think there is any great push for the legislation that’s been introduced,” he said. You have shipper coalitions and you have the trucking industry split.”
A friend who operates one of the country’s largest carriers believes he would have to retrofit all 35,000 of his company’s trailers, he noted.
“At U.S. Xpress in the future we might buy some with six axles,” he said. “We have dedicated trucks for Coca-Cola and Miller Coors Brewery that you might put that axle on for dedicated situations that would be closed loop and you could control it and it would make some sense. I don’t see it would cost justify doing that in a stampede manner. Selectively, surgically, yes, it could be advantageous. Some in TCA feel we gave more capacity by larger cube trailers and longer trailers and didn’t get anything for it. I think those days have kind of changed. If someone wants that extra weight they are going to have to pay something for it. We’ve got to look at congestion, we’ve got to look at the bigger picture, we have to look at the lack of truck drivers and increased productivity for a certain percentage of loads could reduce some of the congestion in parts of our country; it could reduce what everybody believes is going to be a lack of drivers going forward, particularly in light of CSA 2010 and this is one of the solutions that could potentially impact that to some degree. There is no silver bullet here. There’s no one thing that’s going to solve all of this. It could be in specific applications an advantage that could ease the driver shortage and congestion on our highways, save fuel and be greener at the same time.”
Lyndon Finney of The Trucker staff can be reached for comment at email@example.com.
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