Big Rigs Getting Bigger? Congress Under Pressure to Raise Truck Weight Limits

Do you involuntarily brace and grasp the steering wheel when you catch a glimpse of an 18-wheeler bearing down on you on the interstate? That reaction isn’t uncommon, as trucks weighing up to 80,000 pounds have been allowed to share the highways with passenger vehicles since 1982. In contrast, most automobiles weigh in at about 4,000 pounds.

But the maximum size of giant commercial trucks could increase soon, with a coalition of trucking and shipping companies now working behind the scenes in Congress to convince lawmakers to let them use vehicles weighing in at 91,000 pounds. Shippers, who have formed the Safer Hauling and Infrastructure Protection coalition, are arguing that current weight rules “are stuck in the last century” and “modern trucks” are a way to reduce road congestion and exhaust emissions.

Big rig

The shipping coalition argued during a round of recent meetings in congressional offices that “reforming” truck weight rules could generate huge cost savings and improve the outlook for manufacturing.

Among those leading the effort is Anheuser-Busch, which ships a million truckloads of supplies and beer annually. The company, which spent over $1 million on lobbying in the first three months of this year, led a day of visits with key members and aides on the House and Senate appropriations committees trying to convince them to include a rider in the bills they will write to fund federal transportation programs this year.

Industry will soon learn whether their efforts are being successful when the annual Transportation, Housing, and Urban Affairs spending bills are released in July.

Shippers, which also include a long list of agricultural associations and firms, said in a recent letter to appropriators that they want language in the bill to create what they said is a voluntary program under which 10 states could allow 91,000-pound, six-axle trucks. Shippers said the “pilot program” they want appropriators to create should last 15 years to allow carriers to recoup making an investment in trucks with six axles.

But a competing coalition that includes representatives of the nation’s railroads also wrote appropriators saying a 14 percent increase in the weight of trucks will put more stress on an already aging system. The change, it said, could require engineering and repair work to either strengthen or completely replace almost 5,000 bridges, with 1,485 of these on the Interstate system.

It cited a Transportation Department estimate of the cost for those projects to be at least $1.1 billion. That, it said, would be on top of the $2.4 billion needed to address damage already done by trucks weighing 80,000.

The Association of American Railroads, which competes with truckers for market share, said the federal government doesn’t provide similar support for rail. The group also spent more than $1 million on lobbying during the first three months of the year.

But the coalition, which also includes Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways and Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, said more is at stake than infrastructure dollars. DOT found that heavier trucks that operate in three states have 47 percent to 400 percent higher crash rates, it said. Congress defeated the plan when it was actually put to a vote in 2015, the group added.

Heavier trucks is only one change industry is pushing to improve efficiency. Congress is currently considering bills to promote autonomous vehicles, and companies like Anheuser Busch are experimenting with deploying the self-driving technology on their big rigs.

Last fall an Anheuser-Busch truck traveled 120 miles on a beer run without a driver at the steering wheel. That operation was believed to be the first commercial shipment by a driverless truck.