The Big Cost of Heavier Trucks

For years, trucks have failed to pay enough tax revenue to fully compensate for the damage they inflict on America’s roads – a costly blemish on the nation’s otherwise efficient and cost-effective freight transportation network.

Now, some want to double down on the heavy toll trucks inflict by raising the federal weight limit from 80,000 pounds to 91,000 pounds per truck. Doing so would further increase the wear and tear on America’s roadways and harm the transportation partners who work with trucks to keep America’s economy humming.

An Integrated Network

America’s integrated network of barges, trains and trucks helps move 54 tons of freight for every American each year. This finely tuned network makes modern life possible by swiftly and safely carrying everything we rely upon – from the food we eat, to the clothes we wear and the computers, phones and tablets we use.

Freight railroads are at the heart of this integrated network. America’s privately funded freight railroads are unique in their ability to affordably and reliably move freight long distances before handing off to trucks, who are better suited for short-distance travel to and from U.S. manufacturers and markets. Without freight railroads, shippers could not send goods and commodities across the country as quickly and affordably as they do today.

Increasing truck weight limit would disrupt this network by moving freight from trains to trucks and encouraging more trucks to take to America’s overcrowded and underfunded roads.

A 2010 study showed that a similar proposal to increase truck weights to 97,000 pounds could reduce overall rail traffic by 19 percent as heavier trucks took to the roads. The same study found that trucks would not only be heavier, they would be more common too. Increasing truck weight, the report said, would result in 8 million more trucks on roads and bridges – a 56 percent increase from 2010 traffic levels.

More Crowded Highways and a Bigger Tax Bill

Already, America’s taxpayer-supported roads are overcrowded and underfunded. According to the 2017 American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) Infrastructure Report Card,  more than 40 percent of urban interstates are already congested. And traffic delays and lost productivity costs the American economy $160 billion a year in wasted time and fuel, according to ASCE.

Heavier trucks will only exacerbate this troubling trend. In fact, a 2016 U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) study looked at the impact of allowing similarly heavy 97,000-pound trucks and found that increasing weight limits would result in trucks only paying for 50 percent of the damage they cause. The remaining balance would be covered by taxpayers. In particular danger are the nearly 1,500 bridges on America’s Interstate System. U.S. DOT estimates that repairing the damage done by 91,000-pound trucks would cost taxpayers at least $1.1 billion.

Finally, Federal Highway Administration data shows that increasing truck size limits has historically resulted in a steady increase in registered trucks and miles traveled by them. The data is clear: putting more, heavier trucks on our roads is a bad deal for shippers, commuters and taxpayers.

Bigger Trucks Undermine Important Public Policy Goals

Allowing heavier trucks also runs counter to the goal of leveraging private investment in our nation’s infrastructure. Over the last decade, freight rail has invested billions of dollars at the nation’s ports to to quickly transfer thousands of intermodal containers to and from the decks of massive cargo ships. Because intermodal rail decks are not designed to double-stack 91,000-pound containers on freight trains, lawmakers would negate the benefits of billions of dollars of private freight rail investment that has occurred in recent decades.

Moving more freight by rail also helps our nation achieve important environmental policy goals such as reduced fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Trains, on average, are four times more fuel efficient than trucks. That means that moving freight by rail instead of trucks reduces greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 75 percent.

An Unpopular Approach

Adding heavier trucks to our highways is not only a bad policy; it’s an unpopular one too. A May 2013 public opinion poll by Lake Research Partners found that 68 percent of Americans oppose heavier trucks and 88 percent of Americans do not want to pay higher taxes for the damage caused by heavier trucks.

Congress echoed their constituents’ near-uniform opposition to heavier trucks, when the House of Representatives overwhelmingly rejected a 2015 proposal to increase truck weights to 97,000 pounds. At the time, Pennsylvania Representative Lou Barletta criticized the proposal, saying, “This is bad policy because our local communities cannot afford to spend billions in new damages to our local roads and bridges.”

In the time since, America’s highways and bridges have only become more crowded, highway funding has only become scarcer and the threat from heavier trucks has only become clearer. At a time when America’s integrated transportation network carries freight more efficiently and cost effectively than ever before, Congress should continue to oppose heavier trucks on America’s roads and support trucks, cargo ships and freight railroads as they work together to keep America’s economy moving.

Further Reading

Remember Railroads When Talking Infrastructure

Identifying programs to improve infrastructure is both complex and difficult. U.S freight rail plays a unique role in this discussion.

Read More on Morning Consult 

With Smart Policy, Freight Rail Spurs the U.S. Economy

Respected experts agree that smart regulations allow freight rail to serve a vital role in the U.S. economy and must persist.

Continue Reading on AAR.org 

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