With Harrisburg gridlocked by the state budget impasse and Washington battling over national health care, an issue vital to Pennsylvania lurks below the radar. The debate is over the future of the trucking industry—more specifically, legislation that would bolster the transportation sector of our economy, help to adequately fund our interstates at no expense to the taxpayers, and reduce carbon emissions harmful to our environment.
Transportation and materials moving is the 5th largest occupation in Pennsylvania, accounting for almost 440,000 workers, including over 100,000 truck drivers. Nearly 8 percent of the workers in the state are responsible for transporting 90 percent of all manufactured goods in Pennsylvania.
Recently, a bill was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives that would give states the ability to increase the gross weight limit carried by trucks. Known as the Safe and Efficient Transportation Act of 2009 (H.R.-1799), the measure would reduce the total volume of truck traffic and save taxpayers money by dramatically reducing wear and tear on the roads.
Currently, federal law limits vehicle weight on interstate highways to 80,000 lbs with five truck axles (certain loopholes allow trucks to routinely operate above federal weight limits). H.R. 1799 expands the total weight limit to 97,000 lbs, with the addition of a sixth axle and two new brakes.
Critics argue that the Safe and Efficient Transportation Act would jeopardize safety on our roadways. This could not be further from the truth. The United States is one of only a few industrialized nations with such a low weight tolerance. Many countries allow higher weight vehicles, when those trailers are equipped with additional axles and new brakes, without compromising safety performance. Mexico and Canada have seen weight limits jump to 106,000 lbs and 95,000 lbs, respectively, without sacrificing public safety.
In fact, the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Transportation Research Board have both released studies indicating similar safety for both six-axle, 97,000-pound trucks and five-axle, 80,000- pound trucks. Maneuverability, rollover, and vehicle handling data from these studies suggest that adding two additional brakes along with the sixth axle creates a vehicle that can safely traverse interstate highways. The vast majority of truck-related accidents occur on non-interstate highways, illustrating the importance of moving our heaviest trucks away from small rural roads and onto the interstate system.
Critics also contend that heavier trucks will exponentially increase the wear and tear on the roadways. This assertion is unfounded. H.R. 1799 would save approximately $2.5 billion in pavement restoration costs over the next 20 years, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Also, H.R. 1799 would increase fees for trucks operating at the higher weight levels. This additional revenue will be directed toward maintaining and improving our transportation infrastructure.
The Safe and Efficient Transportation Act would also improve the environment. A recent American Transportation Research Institute study found that a 97,000-pound truck is 17 percent more fuel-efficient on a ton-mile basis than an 80,000-pound truck. This means 17 percent less carbon output, and similar reductions in other pollutants. With fewer trucks traversing the roads, not only will congestion be reduced, but carbon emissions and fuel consumption minimized.
The benefits become clearer by looking at the benefits to Pennsylvania businesses. Kraft Foods, which has centers in Allentown, Philadelphia, and Wilkes-Barre and 2,000 employees in Pennsylvania, estimates that over the course of the year, they would run 66,000 fewer loads under the higher weight limits. That would result in 33 million fewer vehicle-miles and save 6.6 million gallons of fuel annually. Most striking, Kraft estimates 73,000 tons of CO2 emissions will also be eliminated under H.R. 1799. Kraft Foods is just one of hundreds of corporations in Pennsylvania that will be allowed to operate in a safer, more efficient manner under this legislation.
The Safe and Efficient Transportation Act of 2009 will save taxpayer dollars and improve our economy by allowing one of our state’s largest industries to continue to thrive. Additionally, this legislation will allow the trucking industry to fund more infrastructure projects on our interstates. The time has come for our outdated trucking regulations to be replaced by new legislation that will help to ensure a prosperous tomorrow.
Jason A. Statler is a Research Fellow with the Commonwealth Foundation (www.CommonwealthFoundation.org), an independent, nonprofit public policy research and educational institute based in Harrisburg.