The trucking industry, in an effort to improve its chances for saving billions of dollars, has decided to bypass a major showdown over longer and heavier trucks in Congress next year and attempt to shift the battle to the states, the industry's spokesman said.

Thomas Donohue, president of the American Trucking Associations, said in an interview that he will not ask Congress next year to allow double- and triple-trailer combinations nationwide. Instead, he said he will ask Congress to allow the states to establish special permit programs that would let trucks exceed federal weight and length restrictions over specific routes, with safety restrictions and extra fees to pay for any excess road and bridge wear.

The stakes are huge, and the industry's need for cost-cutting has never been greater. With fuel prices rising and a soft economy slowing growth, truckers say they need the estimated $4 billion in additional income from a nationwide network of big-truck routes. Truckers have an annual revenue of $239 billion and employ 7.4 million people in hauling 40 percent of U.S. freight tonnage.

But they face a reluctant public, with polls consistently recording fear of bigger trucks and two groups that are more than willing to exploit that fear: the railroad industry and a coalition of consumer and environmental groups called CRASH, Citizens for Reliable And Safe Highways.

Donohue acknowledged that he would have a difficult time persuading Congress to preempt states that do not want longer combination vehicles (LCVs), but would find many state legislatures willing to work with local truckers to establish special permit programs.

"I'll get a bunch of states willing to do it before I'd get a national bill pushed down the throats of the states in this administration," Donohue said.

Railroads and CRASH have mounted a nationwide campaign against the trucking industry in preparation for next year's reauthorization of federal highway programs. The railroads say a nationwide big truck bill would divert cargo from railroads, while CRASH argues that big trucks are unsafe.

Richard E. Briggs, executive vice president of the Association of American Railroads, said the railroad industry will fight Donohue's move in Congress and at the state level if necessary. He said Donohue knows he could not have won a nationwide big truck battle in Congress.

"It was not solely a Christian act on his part," Briggs said. "Tom is deft enough to read the tea leaves."

Under federal restrictions, trucks are limited to 80,000 pounds gross weight, with an axle limit of 20,000 pounds for single axles and 34,000 pounds for tandem axles. In addition, there is a "bridge formula" that limits weight according to the distance from the first to the last axle.

Under "grandfather" provisions enacted when the federal government set nationwide weight and length limits in 1956, many states -- most of them in the West -- already allow heavier and longer trucks.

In most states east of the Rocky Mountains, trucks are generally limited to one 48-foot trailer or two 28-foot trailers. The most common types of LCVs involve three 28-foot trailers, called a "triple," two 48-foot trailers, called a "turnpike double," and one 48-foot plus one 28-foot trailer, called a "Rocky Mountain double."

Donohue wants all states to have the right to set limits within federal guidelines. He has an influential ally, the Transportation Research Board (TRB), an arm of the National Research Council, which was established to encourage transportation research.

The board, in a report last summer, suggested that states be allowed to set up special permit systems to allow greater gross weights, with tight state and federal controls over routes, weights and safety, and special fees to cover all excess damage. The board recommended no change in per-axle weight limits.

Although the board did not address truck lengths, it said some states would likely increase truck lengths to allow for greater gross weights without increasing axle weight.

Truckers who do not get special permits would remain under current limits, although they could benefit from the board's suggestion that the bridge formula be changed to allow somewhat greater loadings.

"We're going to ask for the full implementation of the TRB study, period," Donohue said.

Donohue also said he will fight any increase in fuel taxes, given that Congress increased them 5 cents a gallon in this year's budget reconciliation bill.

"We just gave at the office," he said. ". . . If, over time, they begin to spend down the highway trust fund, we would be amenable to paying more. But show us. We're from Missouri."