Federal appropriators must reject longer trucks
© Greg Nash

Federal policymakers ought to answer a simple question: should large commercial trucks fully cover their costs for using public roadways, or should taxpayers help foot the bill? From the perspective of large, private freight railroads that compete with trucks and other subsidized transportation modes, the answer is a resounding “no.”

Private enterprises should cover their costs to do business, including moving freight over roads, bridges and highways also used by the traveling public.

The evidence is clear: big trucks, which play an invaluable role to U.S. commerce and are also a major customer of the rail industry, simply do not account for the costs associated with their infrastructure use. Some sections of the industry advocate for a gas tax increase, but that does not seem sufficient nor imminent.

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“The last Federal highway cost allocation study [sic] showed that many of the heaviest trucks pay considerably less than their highway cost responsibility,” reports the U.S. Department of Transportation.

This issue is particularly pertinent as the Senate Appropriations Committee readies action on its transportation spending bill, a process in which proponents of even bigger trucks may try to hijack the spending process to modify existing truck-size limits. Most specifically, the Senate panel may consider a proposal to allow Twin 33-foot double-trailers nationally – an increase of 17 feet compared to today’s standard, single-trailer trucks.

The House Appropriations Committee, which recently approved its transportation package at funding levels nearly identical to what the Senate will now undertake, rejected the overtures of bigger truck proponents to deploy the larger configurations nationwide. After all, such matters should be litigated in authorizing committees – House Transportation & Infrastructure, Senate Commerce and Senate Environment and Public Works – not government spending bills. To its credit, the House Committee voiced concern “about the demands being placed on structurally deficient bridges” and argued that “a significant increase in federal truck size could create greater funding needs.”

Maintaining current federal truck weight and length limits comes back to basic math, relevant for number-minded appropriators: if big trucks can’t cover their costs today, why would Congress willingly exacerbate the problem? The Highway Trust Fund (HTF) – which has required $143 billion in general funds since 2008 – isn’t becoming any more solvent. Most estimates show that bigger trucks simply lead to more trucks – as many as 8 million more according to one study of weight increases – which is a real problem if Congress wants to forge a sustainable path for the HTF. 

Indeed, absent structural changes that truly return the HTF to a user-pay system as it was designed –  including forward-thinking solutions such as a system to charge trucks for the distance they travel and the weight of their vehicles – taxpayer subsidization will only continue.

Opposing bigger trucks should be a slam dunk in Washington. Roughly four in five Americans oppose increases, and a majority of voters from both parties say that trucks should cover their full cost of operations.

The rail industry not only values its business with trucks – which is nearly a quarter of all revenue – but believes it is mutually beneficial. In 2015 alone, freight rail carriers handled 15.3 million intermodal containers and 1.5 million trailers carrying a myriad of goods central to our high-quality of life. Trucks, railroads and ships in the U.S. combine to form a top-performing supply chain that delivers 54 tons per American every year. 

However, we reject efforts by select trucking interests to increase truck sizes until policymakers take real action to require the trucking sector to cover its costs. Absent such dialogue, campaigns to boost truck sizes should be emphatically rejected.

Hamberger is president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads.