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A U.S. Department of Transportation study couldn’t conclude whether heavier trucks impact highway safety, but it did find they would not significantly impact intermodal conversions.
Proponents for raising the weight and size restrictions on trucks have heralded the finding, despite the DOT’s claims that the evidence behind their own report proved insufficient.
Those proponents highlight the report’s conclusion that heavier trucks would shift as little as 0.8 percent of the rail industry’s traffic from rail to highway — a number made even less significant when offset by overall freight growth projected over the next 25 years.
That finding factored little into the DOT’s ultimate recommendation to Congress last month. The agency erred on the side of caution in early June when it advised Congress that changes to federal limits on truck sizes and weights shouldn’t be considered. Their reason: data limitations in the department’s own study into the matter were “profound.”
The study was part of a transportation bill passed in 2012 known as MAP-21. In the bill, lawmakers ordered the DOT to study the impact heavier trucks could have on highway safety, pavement and bridge infrastructure, enforcement efforts and modal shift.
After three years of study and 1,100 pages of released data, however, the DOT sidestepped the decades-long fight over truck sizes and weights.
According to Peter M. Rogoff, undersecretary of transportation, there wasn't enough data available from crash reporting statistics to determine a vehicle's weight at the time of collision. Moreover, the DOT could not determine from the available data whether trucks, prior to a crash, were fully loaded, running overweight, at legal capacity for their axle configurations or had unevenly distributed weight.
The study was largely written off by DOT officials and welcomed by U.S. railroads and other opponents to heavier trucks.
But, a shippers’ group says the DOT study is more telling than the DOT let on.
In a letter to Congress, the Coalition for Transportation Productivity, a group of 200 shippers and allied associations, urged lawmakers to reconsider the study’s findings.
“The actual study data provides strong support for allowing trucks equipped with six axles to carry more freight on Interstate System highways,” the letter reads. “This is the real message for Congress.”
The group points out that, according to the DOT’s own numbers in their report, six-axle vehicles weighing 97,000 pounds and 91,000 pounds would divert $562 million and $196 million, respectively, from rail — an industry worth $70 billion.
It’s a fraction of the total industry that would be overwhelmingly offset by overall freight growth over the next 25 years. Freight is projected to grow at nearly 2 percent each year, 45 percent by 2040.
“One of the most notable findings of the DOT study is the minimal diversion of freight from rail to truck as a result of more productive trucks. Such a small amount of freight diversion is more than offset by the projected higher overall growth of freight volume for all modes,” the group concluded.
The coalition’s letter is a pointed response to an argument not often articulated by opponents to heavier trucks.
A longtime opponent of increasing trailer sizes, the American Association of Railroads, the largest rail lobby group in the U.S., has consistently argued that heavier trucks and larger trailer sizes will increase increase congestion and road damage at the taxpayers’ expense — not touching on the impact that increasing truck sizes would have on the rail industry as capacity continues to constrict across major transportation modes.
“The freight rail industry in 2015 will fight any attempt to increase existing truck size and weight limits,” AAR’s 2015 outlook report reads. “Larger and heavier trucks mean more gridlock, greater environmental damage and higher taxpayer costs to repair damage to highways and bridges.”
The AAR has declined to comment on the study’s findings since they were published in June.
This article first appeared on www.joc.com
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