By  on June 10, 2008

WASHINGTON — Congress is preparing for a potentially contentious debate next year pitting advocates of improving deteriorated highways, roads and bridges against commercial truckers who want to use larger and heavier vehicles because of staggering diesel fuel prices.

Two Senate bills introduced last month center on whether the federal government should allow mammoth trucks on aging roads to help truckers and private industry compensate for soaring gas costs. Truckers face record-high diesel fuel prices that hit $4.76 a gallon on Monday, according to the American Automobile Association. Prices are expected to keep rising.

Most trucking industry experts acknowledged the bills are being used as a marker until next year, when a new president and Congress will be in power. The major highway reauthorization bill expires Sept. 30, 2009, and industry experts said Congress will likely focus on the truck weight and size issues during that debate.

One of the bills before Congress, introduced by Maine Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, would loosen restrictions on truck weight. The bill would establish a two-year pilot program permitting trucks carrying up to as much as 100,000 pounds to travel on federal highways when diesel prices hit $3.50 a gallon or higher.

"Current laws that force trucks carrying more than 80,000 pounds off the federal interstate system and onto smaller, two-lane roads simply do not make sense," Collins said. "This legislation would lessen the fuel cost burden on truckers by putting these trucks back on the federal interstate where they belong."

Some states have higher weight limits on their state highways, generally for specific industries such as coal mining and logging.

A legislative proposal introduced by Sens. Frank Lautenberg (D., N.J.) and Claire McCaskill (D., Mo.) seeks the opposite approach and will likely serve as the counterpoint in next year's debate. It would maintain the existing 80,000 pound limit for tractor-trailer trucks on interstate highways and establish a maximum length of 53 feet.

The bill would extend the current weight limit and freeze on triple-trailers to the entire 160,000-mile National Highway System — consisting of the interstate highways and highways that connect major ports, airports and public transportation facilities, as well as a network of roads used for strategic defense policy and public emergency routes — while allowing some exemptions, including firefighting equipment."Our bill would protect our infrastructure and improve safety on our roads by helping keep dangerously large and heavy tractor-trailer trucks off of them," Lautenberg said.

For retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which owns one of the largest private truck fleets in the U.S. and has among the most extensive logistics and supply chain networks, allowing larger trucks could lead to dramatic savings in transportation costs.

"The idea is that larger trucks would give additional capacity to deliver more cargo with fewer drivers and pieces of equipment than is the case with the 80,000-pound maximum equipment," said Gary Petty, president and chief executive officer for the National Private Truck Council, which has members such as Wal-Mart Transportation, VF Jeanswear, Milliken & Co. and Target Corp.

Increasing the weight and size requirements could provide a 20 percent increase in capacity for truckers if the tractor-trailer is fully loaded, Petty said.

Jonathan Gold, vice president of supply chain and customs policy for the National Retail Federation, said the debate over increasing truck size and length has been going on for years, but he noted that new legislative initiatives with that goal could have more traction if diesel prices continue to climb.

"As they get into the highway bill reauthorization next year, these will be some of the key things that are debated," Gold said. "[Lawmakers] will not only be looking at funding [highway and bridge improvements], but how to make it a more efficient and robust system overall."

Gold and Petty, pointing to Department of Transportation studies they said support their arguments, said they still expect opposition from consumer and environmental groups that argue bigger and heavier trucks are more dangerous and lead to further highway and bridge erosion.

But Petty said that with the cost of diesel fuel at an all-time high, "it makes sense to take advantage of creating a uniform weight and size program to get the most out of the trucks and drivers."

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