CHAMPAIGN – Local employers Kraft Foods and Supervalu are pushing Congress to allow an increase in the weight of trucks, claiming such a change could save money, cut fuel use and reduce emissions.
A bill pending before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee would increase the allowable weight of trucks from 80,000 pounds to 97,000 pounds. But it would require a sixth axle be added to trucks carrying that much weight.
The bill is backed by the Coalition for Transportation Productivity, made up largely of companies that ship products by truck, and the American Trucking Association. Opposing the bill are some independent truck owners and highway safety groups.
Supporters hope the measure – HR 1799, which they call the Safe and Efficient Transportation Act – eventually will be incorporated as an amendment to next year's highway bill.
But for now, the bill introduced by U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, remains before the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, of which U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson, R-Urbana, is a member.
Johnson hasn't taken a position on the bill, according to his press secretary, Phil Bloomer.
"He has not made up his mind and is still looking at the issue," Bloomer said. "It'll be a while before it comes up for a vote."
Bloomer said a competing bill – HR 1618, known as the Safe Highways and Infrastructure Preservation Act – would freeze truck weights at 80,000 pounds and extend weight restrictions to cover the national highway system. That bill was introduced by Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass.
HR 1799 – the bill backed by Kraft and Supervalu – wouldn't increase the size of trucks, only the amount they can carry, said John Runyan, executive director of the Coalition for Transportation Productivity.
"This bill is not about a bigger, wider, longer truck," he said. Instead, it would allow companies to ship bigger loads, making greater use of a truck's volume.
Responding to concerns about safety, Runyan said it's true that moving a large, heavy mass has some inherent risk.
But, he added, "it's important to point out you can maintain the stopping capability of the truck by increasing axle and braking capacity."
A 97,000-pound truck with five axles can't stop as fast as an 80,000-pound truck with five axles. But it can if you add a sixth axle, he said.
"When you add the axle, you mitigate the safety concerns," Runyan said.
Runyan said the bill backed by his group would allow companies to ship products more efficiently.
"There can be as much as 20 percent empty space on a truck that's fully weighted," he said.
As an example, he cited the case of an International Paper mill in Alabama that had 600 fully weighted trucks leaving its loading dock each week.
Each truck had space still available. Had they been fully loaded, the same amount of goods could have been carried by 450 trucks instead of 600, he said.
That would have saved 70,000 gallons of diesel fuel a week and reduced carbon emissions by 300,000 pounds a week, he said.
There have been previous attempts to raise truck weights, but fuel costs provided the impetus for this year's effort, Runyan said.
"When fuel prices spiked last year, we knew we had to mount a significant effort to get this done," he said.
Runyan said the bill is supported by shippers, manufacturers, carriers and related associations, but railroads aren't keen on it.
"They worry increased goods will be shipped via truck," he said.
Opponents contend heavier trucks pose a danger to other motorists and wear down highways and bridges.
But Runyan said a study in the United Kingdom indicates otherwise. That nation put a similar weight-increase proposal in place in 2001. A 2008 study found more goods had been shipped, but fewer vehicle-miles had been traveled, as a result of the larger loads.
Also, the number of people killed in heavy-truck-related accidents had gone down 35 percent. Runyan said that's because the accident rate is closely related to the number of vehicle-miles traveled.
Traveling fewer miles would also reduce the trucking industry's "footprint" on the highways, he claimed. He pointed to a study for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation from January that indicated the measure could save the state millions of dollars in pavement restoration.
Runyan emphasized the proposal, if enacted, would not mean fewer trucks on the road in 20 years.
"I'm not saying that. There will be more trucks on the road in 20 years, and we need to prepare for that," he said.
But if the measure is adopted, there would be fewer trucks than there otherwise would have been, he said.
The bill would give states discretion on whether to allow the heavier trucks.
"Each state has to opt in. It would not be a mandate for every state," Runyan said. "It would be up to every state to apply it to their highways."
The bill also calls for a user fee for six-axle vehicles to help pay for bridge repair and maintenance.
Not every truck can be retrofitted with a sixth axle, Runyan noted. But for vehicles that can be altered, adding another axle would likely mean a $6,000 to $8,000 investment, he said.
Most 18-wheelers have an axle with two wheels at the front of the tractor. A little farther back – just behind the driver – are two more axles, each with four wheels. At the rear of the trailer are two more axles, each with four wheels.
The sixth axle would be added just inside the back two axles, Runyan said.
Besides Kraft and Supervalu, other area companies that are part of the Coalition for Transportation Productivity include Decatur-based Archer Daniels Midland, Moline-based Deere & Co. and LyondellBasell, which has a plant in Tuscola.
The National Taxpayers Union is also part of the coalition.
Kraft says weight increase would carry benefits for local plant
CHAMPAIGN – For the Kraft Foods plant in Champaign, legislation allowing heavier trucks could have tremendous benefits, said Harry Haney, associate director of transportation for the Northfield-based company.
Each year, Kraft sends about 2,150 truckloads of product from the Champaign plant to a distribution center in Norcross, Ga.
The company figures if legislation is enacted increasing allowable truck weights from 80,000 to 97,000 pounds, Kraft could send the same amount of goods to Norcross by making only 1,650 trips – a reduction of about 23 percent.
Allowing heavier trucks would mean 500 fewer trips per year on that route, 312,500 fewer miles traveled, 33,000 gallons of diesel fuel saved and a reduction of 730,000 pounds in carbon dioxide emissions, Haney said.
Nationally, Kraft ships about 1 million loads a year, and the legislation could reduce that by more than 60,000 loads, or roughly 6 percent.
The reason that percentage reduction is lower than the Champaign-to-Norcross reduction is the national figure includes lightweight products such as marshmallows, Cool Whip and pizza.
The Champaign-to-Norcross route involves heavier products such as Miracle Whip, salad dressings and barbecue sauce, said Haney, who was Kraft's private fleet manager in Champaign from 1992 to 1997. He's now based in Madison, Wis.
When heavier products are shipped, the truck bumps up against weight limits, preventing the whole volume of the truck from being used.
About 40 percent of the truckloads Kraft ships "will weigh out before they cube out," Haney said.
Nationally, Kraft figures that if the bill is passed, the company will see 33 million fewer miles driven, 6.6 million gallons of fuel saved and a reduction of 73,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions.
Haney was asked how Kraft's drivers feel about the proposed increase in allowable truck weights.
"I don't know that we have spoken with them much about it," Haney said, adding he thought they would be supportive of it.
"Drivers, as a whole, are a very seasoned, professional group that have embraced the opportunity to become more efficient over the years," he said.
The Kraft Foods transport facility in Champaign houses the company's largest private fleet of trucks. Kraft has 57 full-time and six part-time drivers in Champaign. It also has two full-time mechanics, two part-time mechanics and a lead mechanic.