The trucking industry is a vital element of our nation's economy. But unlike air and rail, truck transport requires these large 18-wheel behemoths to share the road with regular citizens, and this can become problematic as large trucks have been suspected of causing damage to the roads and highways that we all travel.

Recently, a bill has been introduced in the House of Representatives that would raise truck weight limits, causing a debate within the industry on whether raising weight limits will cause more damage to the infrastructure or actually benefit it.

Congressional fight

On Sept. 10, Rep. Reid Ribble (R-Wis.) introduced the Safe, Flexible, and Efficient (SAFE) Trucking Act, a bill created with the hopes of making the freight shipping industry more efficient and safe, as well as maintaining shared roads and bridge infrastructure.

According to Ribble's website, "The reality is that our roads are already overcrowded with families heading to school and work, and trucks carrying the things we buy across the country. The U.S. population has almost doubled since our Interstate highway system was built, and demand for freight shipping is only going up.

"The SAFE Trucking Act will help us safely move more of the things Americans want with fewer trucks taking up space on the road, and it is based on data to ensure that truck stopping times and pavement wear are as good as or better than our current trucks. When we can increase efficiency, decrease traffic, and make everyone safer in the process, that is a win, and the SAFE Trucking Act is able to help us achieve all these objectives."

According to U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) safety and road wear data, the SAFE Trucking Act was drafted to allow individual states the ability to decide whether to allow freight shipping trucks to carry a maximum of 91,000 pounds — an increase from the current limit of 80,000. These heavier trucks would also be required to have a sixth axle one extra than the current model of five — to ensure heavier trucks are able to have safe stopping capabilities and that they do not wear the pavement any more than their lighter counterparts.

Although there is a coalition of 200 large motor carriers, shippers and manufacturers backing the legislation, there are others that find it dangerous and unresponsive. Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association President Jim Johnston wrote a letter in opposition to Ribble's bill.

"This is an ill-conceived policy, which will have negative impacts on both the safety of our highways and the efficiency of freight movement across the country," Johnston wrote. "OOIDA members are the men and women who see the impacts of road wear and tear every day. We know first-hand the experience and knowledge it takes to safely operate a truck and understand the impact that heavier trucks will have on our nation's roads. It takes a lot of braking power and extensive training to safely operate these vehicles."

Truck weight dilemma

The damage large trucks can do to roads and bridges has been known for quite some time.

Back in 1979, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a study titled, "Excessive Truck Weight: An Expensive Burden We Can No Longer Support," which attempted to study the damage an 18-wheeler carrying excessive weight can have on our infrastructure.

According to the study, "National statistics show that at least 22 percent of all loaded tractor-trailers exceed state weight limits. This percentage is even higher for other types of large trucks. Although the [DOT] supported the 1975 increased federal weight limits, it has no program sufficient to offset related increased costs to preserve the quality of the highways."

How much more damage to highways and roads do heavy trucks cause when compared to regular automobiles? According to the report, one 18-wheeler can provide the same amount of damage as 9,600 cars.

"A fully-loaded tractor-trailer at 80,000 pounds, compared to a typical passenger car at 4,000 pounds is a 20 times difference in weight," the study declared, "but the wear and tear caused by the truck is exponentially greater."

Today, things haven't seemed to change much.

Rhode Island's government, for example, has proposed making owners of big trucks pay the bill for bridge projects. For Gov. Gina Raimondo, the reason is simple: Big trucks should pay to repair the damage they, almost exclusively, cause.

It is "commercial vehicles 18 wheelers and above and the fact of the matter is, those are the trucks that cause 90 plus percent of the damages on our highways and bridges," she said. "They're also the ones that benefit the most from high-quality, well-maintained roads."

So on May 27, Raimondo announced her plan to raise $700 million for the RhodeWorks program by establishing tolls for certain trucks, specifically 18-wheelers and above.

Bill support

Despite opposition to Ribble's bill, there is also a strong undercurrent of support from trucking organizations.

According to Donna Harman, president and CEO of American Forest and Paper Association, Canadian and Mexican competitors are already benefiting from weight limits that are higher. Harman also noted a less-mentioned benefit of a higher weight limits, at least to the infrastructure — higher carrier loads per truck may mean fewer trucks on the road. Ribble's bill could reduce the number of truck trips for forest products by around 1.4 million each year.

The weight limit change could also go a long way to helping address inefficiency issues some transport companies suffer.

Bill supporter James Sembrot, the senior director of transportation at Anheuser-Busch InBev, explained that current weight limits often force his company to send out trailers that are 60 percent empty. Subsequently, a new 91,000-pound limit would not only provide for a more efficient use of trailer space, but it would also allow Anheuser-Busch to take 100,000 trucks a year off the highway.

No matter which side of the argument, finding a way to balance industry competiveness with our nation's infrastructure care is a must. This is especially true when Congress seems unable or incapable of addressing the issues on their own.

Currently, the Federal Highway Administration is seeking comments through Oct. 13 on a recent technical report on the agency's congressionally-mandated study concerning comprehensive truck size and weight limits.