Deadlines versus data: Truck size and weight study a tall task short on time

By David Tanner, Land Line associate editor | 12/19/2013

A comprehensive study of truck size and weight deserves more time – and more data – than the federal agency doing the study currently possesses, according to truckers and OOIDA staffers who participated in a public session conducted by Federal Highway Administration on Wednesday, Dec. 18.

Truck size and weight continues to be a divisive issue in the trucking industry, with shippers and the ATA lobbying to increase truck size and weight, and small-business operators and OOIDA fighting to keep the current freeze in place. Many organizations and safety groups have weighed in on the subject over the years as well.

The session and the public comment period that was recently extended to Jan. 17, 2014, will help shape the Federal Highway Administration’s Comprehensive Truck Size and Weight Limits Study as mandated by Congress.

The agency is charged with showing how longer and heavier vehicles would affect highway safety, pavement conditions, bridge conditions, freight modes and regulatory compliance. They’ll do it by comparing standard weights and truck configurations against larger and heavier trucks and various trailer configurations that are permitted in various parts of the country.

OOIDA and truckers are urging the agency to consider many real-world effects of truck size and weight such as wear-and-tear on highways and bridges, the shortage of safe truck parking, and human components such as driver training and the handling of heavy equipment in all types of weather.

Federal Highway Administration Transportation Specialist Tom Kearney, who is overseeing the study project team, says the agency is up against a November 2014 deadline to report to Congress. He told session participants that the study will make no attempt to recommend or influence Congress on whether or not truck sizes and weights should be changed.

“We certainly agree with the approach that this is a study and not a recommendation,” OOIDA Director of Government Affairs Ryan Bowley said, “because there are so many things that the agency says they’re not going to have the opportunity to flesh out or examine given the time frame and the data that they’re going to compile.”

Truckers, state DOTs, safety groups and others provided comments to Kearney and the other panelists during the session.

OOIDA urges truckers to continue to raise real-world scenarios and supply comments to the agency about how longer and heavier trucks would affect their businesses and issues of highway safety and parking.

“The more that folks weigh in that those issues exist, there’s more impetus on the FHWA and the people doing the study to recognize that those issues are out there,” Bowley said.

Kearney says many of the models being set up to run the study will use existing data. Parts of the study will seek new data, however, such as how longer and heavier trucks affect bridges. One model the agency will use will help determine the number of bridges that could become weight-limited or off limits to trucks because of wear-and-tear by longer and heavier vehicles.

OOIDA Life Member Steve Bixler, who participated in the session, pointed out that his home state of Pennsylvania has a disproportionately high number of deficient and obsolete bridges compared to other states.

“The average bridge age in Pennsylvania is 51 years old,” he told the panelists. The Keystone State also ranks high in terms of miles traveled by trucks. Not a good combination for longer and heavier trucks, he said.

Advances in technology will help Kearney and the study team analyze data – especially the bridge data – and help the agency with its findings.

“They’ve done a good job of gathering what information is out there – studies by DOT and others,” said Bowley. “They’ve identified areas, especially on the pavement and bridge-damage side, where advances in technology and advances in modeling will give them a better picture of the effects of longer and heavier vehicles.”

The agency may have a more difficult time with the section on modal shift – or how shippers may move freight from one mode to another if longer and heavier trucks are allowed. An example would be how some rail freight could end up on the highways in longer and heavier trucks, increasing traffic.

“That may be hard to quantify, but there are things that need to underlie all of their data analysis, especially in the modal-shift area, along with the safety area and the compliance area,” Bowley said.

“In many ways, they have a good understanding of where things are. But because of the way they have to do the study, they’re going to be dependent on computer modeling rather than real-world interaction with truckers,” Bowley said.

“When OOIDA talks to truckers about the issues that are tied in with heavier and longer vehicles, we hear a lot of the underlying factors such as truck parking, crashworthiness, stopping distance, driver training. We’re going to continue to voice those underlying factors because they play into all of the other categories.”

“Truckers need to make comments about these underlying issues and stress that they need to be part of the agency’s work,” he said. “At the very least, the agency needs to be able to publicly acknowledge that these are issues that need further research.”

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