The House of Delegates committee had just voted 10 to 7 against the trucking industry, which wanted longer trucks allowed on all state roads, and that worried the industry lobbyists.
One by one truckers, manufacturers, and the Virginia Agribusiness Council rose to explain the situation. Some of the largest companies doing business in Virginia, such as the James River Corp. and the corporation that owns the 7-Eleven stores, wanted this bill passed, they said.
"I'm talking about the big ones," L. Ray Ashworth, the truckers' lobbyist and a former House committee chairman, reminded the committee.
When the lobbyists had finished, the committee voted 12 to 5 to allow bigger trucks on Virginia's secondary roads.
"I think the failure of the passenger-car driver to make his feelings known makes these hearings very one-dimensional," Fairfax Republican Del. Robert T. Andrews said after the hearing. "It becomes whatever is good for the truckers."
Virginia must lift length and width restrictions on trucks on interstate highways, thanks to action taken by Congress last year, or lose as much as $280 million in federal highway funds next year. But the federal mandate does not apply to most state roads--secondary roads like Rte. 123 in Fairfax County, for instance--and it was the restrictions on those roads that the lobbyists moved in to attack.
The federal guidelines, intended to compensate for the truck-tax increases that sparked the current independent truckers' strike, allow an increase in the width of trucks from 96 inches to 102 inches and the length from 56 feet to as long as 80 feet. They will also allow twin-trailer trucks to rumble down I-95 for the first time.
"The feds had us over a barrel here," said Fairfax Republican Del. Robert E. Harris. "I think when people in these underpowered cars try to get around these 80-foot rigs they're going to be very upset." But Harris also voted to allow 61-foot trucks, 5 feet more than the current limit, on state roads, which are not controlled by Congress.
"I think people recognize that giving another 5 or 6 feet just gives additional economy," Harris explained.
The lobbyists who moved into action after the initial vote against them said fuel economy was only one of many reasons to allow longer trucks on all state roads.
"We're in a very difficult position with regard to industrial development, as you know," said Zachariah C. Dameron Jr., president of the Virginia Manufacturers Association. "We need the 60-foot length. . . . If we don't have it, we will be at a competitive disadvantage with neighboring states. . . . Frankly, we need more than 60 feet ."
Under questioning, the lobbyists acknowledged that neighboring states, like Virginia, currently limit trucks on state roads to 56 feet. But they said bills also have been introduced in those legislatures to lift those restrictions.
Ashworth argued the issue really was one of trucker safety, since a limit of 56 feet would force truck companies to buy shorter, more dangerous cabs. "I just beg of you that you give us this 60 feet so we may treat our own people the way we treat people from New Jersey," Ashworth said, referring to the longer trucks that will now be permitted on the interstates.
Only the railroad lobbyist spoke against lifting the size restrictions, and by the time he was finished one delegate who had voted against the longer trucks had left the room and four others were ready to support a bill allowing them.
"Our passenger cars are getting smaller, and our trucks are getting bigger, and the public is concerned about this," Andrews protested. "Last year we increased the weight limit. This year we're increasing the length limit. Next year we'll be back with twin trailers."
"Why did it pass?" said Prince William Democratic Del. Floyd C. Bagley. "Why are any of these bills approved? Because of the lobbyists."