REMEMBER THE BATTLE of truck weight limits that enlivened the political climate around here a few years ago? It's heating up again. The same old arguments about safety and the destruction of highway surfaces are back, but this time there's a new argument. It is called states' rights, and it is based on the claim that some states aren't trying very hard to stop truckers from cheating on the weight limits. Early this month the Department of Transportation served notice on 14 states that they could lose federal highway funds because they were not enforcing their own truck weight laws. It warned another 11, including Maryland and the District of Columbia, that their enforcement programs were marginal.
We don't know what kind of reception those warnings are getting in state capitals or among truckers, but we doubt that it is particularly warm. Many state highway officials may welcome the warnings because they are concerned about what overweight trucks are doing to the roads. But not many state politicians are likely to be pleased to learn that they must spend more money enforcing their own laws in order to keep the federal dollars flowing. It will not take long for this resentment about another federal intrusion into state affairs to reach Congress.
In this conflict, it seems clear that the federal interest is paramount. The interstate highway system was built largely with federal dollars. It is now apparent that billions of dollars more in federal funds will be necessary to maintain it. The evidence gathered by a congressional subcommittee early last winter indicates that overweight trucks are substantially responsible for the premature deterioration of parts of that system, as well as for the growing bill for repairs on other federal-aid highways. Despite the disclaimers of the trucking industry, the evidence also suggested that in some states the weight limits were being treated by trucking companies and truckers as little more than a joke. In this situation, it is appropriate for the federal government to come down hard on the states that are neglecting their responsibility. It makes no sense to spend large amounts of money to rebuild roads when their life span without repairs could be increased by spending smaller amounts of money on enforcing the law.