To reduce costs for truck transportation companies, lawmakers and growers are lobbying to increase the weight six-axle trucks are legally limited to carry to 97,000 lbs.
In the summer of 2008, International Paper, Kraft, the American Forest and Paper Association and the Agricultural Transportation Efficiency Coalition (AgTec) formed the Coalition for Transportation Productivity (CTP) in order to make this idea a nationwide policy.
Since then several companies and organizations have joined, including the National Potato Council and the Idaho Potato Commission.
"We shared a common desire to change the difficulty and high cost of shipping without compromising safety or the environment," said Hank Haney, co-chairman of the Coalition.
In the 1980s the tractor-trailer weight limit nationwide was set at 80,000 lbs. and it hasn't changed since. Some states have been able to grandfather in law allowing them to have higher weight limits, but those only apply within those states and not on federal interstates. For this reason heavier trucks have to drive through state highways that are less equipped to handle the loads.
"Let's say we have a bunch of potatoes to ship to New York. Even though in Idaho we can load 105,000 lbs. we still have to ship 80,000 lbs. because we're going through other states," said Travis Blacker of the Idaho Grower Shippers Association.
The advantage of a higher weight limit is simply that with more freight on a truck fewer trucks need to be driven. This in turn means better fuel economy, less wear-and-tear on roads and less damage to the environment.
Most tractor-trailers weigh 35,000 lbs., so with a limit of 80,000 lbs., a truck can carry 45,000 lbs. With a limit of 97,000 lbs., one could carry 57,000 lbs. To ship a load of 500,000 potatoes would take 11 trucks with the 80,000 limit, but if the limit were increased to 97,000, it would only take nine.
The difference is about 24 percent, so what would take 600 trucks would only take 450 under the new standard.
"If you multiply those savings across the entire shipping and manufacturing industry, it's easy to see why this is a win-win for both the environment and the economy," Haney said.
The Department of Transportation also released studies predicting the amount of freight on U.S. roads to triple by 2025 and the rate of truck traffic increasing 11 times faster than road construction.
Weight limits in other countries are significantly higher than in the United States. Canada's limit is 95,000 lbs., Mexico's is 106,000 lbs. and the United Kingdom has a limit of 97,000 lbs. Supporters of a weight limit increase see this as evidence that there is nothing to fear in increasing the weight limit to 97,000 lbs. and that having a lower limit puts the United States at a competitive disadvantage.
If the idea of increasing the weight limit is so obvious, why hasn't it been done already? Blacker cites ignorance as the main reason. "I think it's lack of education. Whenever people hear about increasing the weight limit they think of two things: safety and tearing up the roads."
Supporters pose the solution of adding a sixth axle in order to redistribute weight. "The extra axle has four more tires, so the [weight distribution] comes out to 35 lbs. less per tire," Blacker said.
In addition, the Department of Transportation has conducted several tests of the safety factors such as static roll stability and rearward amplification on heavier, six-axle trucks. The group found the six-axle trucks to be slightly safer than lighter five-axle trucks.
Supporters refer to similar studies done with similar results from the British Department for Transport and statistics showing that accidents and road damage hasn't changed since their weight limit was increased to 97,000 lbs. in 2001.
The CTP and other supporters only approve of weight increase on six-axle trucks with a permit.
For the weight limit to be raised nationwide to 97,000 lbs., Congress would have to approve. Every five years Congress must pass the Highway Reauthorization Bill authorizing any highway improvements and policies for the next five years. The new bill must be passed before this September before the current policy expires. It is the hope of the CTP that the weight limit increase will be included in that bill. If it doesn't happen on this bill they are other options to pursue.
Representative Mike Michaud (D-Maine) supports this measure and has especially worked to have it included on the bill. He has also introduced a bill to allow trucks in Maine to drive the state's weight limit of 100,000 lbs. on federal interstates within the state.
"The country is currently a puzzling patchwork of laws related to truck weights . clearly, a safe and uniform fix is in order," Haney said.
To find out more about this issue, including in-depth statistics or to find out what you can do, visit www.transportationproductivity.org.