Supporters say the super trucks are important to keep commerce flowing, particularly for enterprises such as the Port of Virginia. They also argue that the heavier trucks would pose no additional threat to highway safety or infrastructure than existing 18-wheelers. Those advocates say they would just like to give Virginia flexibility to test the use and effect of super trucks, regardless of the federal government’s stance.
“If the feds are going to study it . . . I want to have a seat at that table,” said Del. T. Scott Garrett (R-Lynchburg), who sponsored legislation that would permit the commonwealth to take part in any federal pilot program allowing heavier trucks. “If the feds aren’t going to study it, then the Virginia Department of Transportation ought to study it.”
Opponents argue, however, that the heavier trucks will inflict more damage to roads and bridges whose maintenance in the state and nationwide has already been neglected. They also say the trucks are more dangerous to surrounding traffic.
“The laws of physics do not change,” said Shane Reese, a spokesman for the Coalition Against Bigger Trucks (CABT). “Heavier trucks at higher speeds means increased crash severity.”
CABT and other opponents — several of which are funded by rail interests — argue that opening the nation’s roads to heavier trucks would also mean diverting freight from the nation’s railroads at the expense of taxpayers and the environment. These are factors that Congress took into consideration when it decided against raising the weight limits in November 2015. The trucking industry, they say, has turned to state legislatures to try to get what they couldn’t get in Washington.
There aren’t even any pilot programs or plans for pilot programs at the federal level at the moment. Backers are hoping that by passing state legislation, they could create momentum for action.
“This is an issue that never really goes away,” said Betsy Cantwell, a spokeswoman for GoRail, a nonprofit organization that works on behalf of rail contractors and suppliers.
Some super-heavy trucks hauling containerized cargo or milk already operate with permits that exempt them from the 80,000-pound maximum weight limit, Garrett said in an interview this week.
Garrett also said he believes the giant rigs could actually be safer, because they often have additional axles with brakes. He also said that heavier loads per truck inflict less overall damage to highways and bridges because more tonnage would be running on fewer trucks. The point of his bill would be to give Virginia a free hand to test and study the effect of running heavier trucks on the state’s highways.
An April 2016 report by the U.S. Department of Transportation warned against drawing any conclusions one way or another on the wisdom of permitting heavier trucks on the nation’s roads, given the limited data available and the complexity and number of variables, such as pavement and bridge type.
But opponents of bigger trucks say some of the study’s findings were cause for concern. In analyzing data from one state where such data were available, the DOT found crash rates were 47 percent higher for trucks weighing 91,000 pounds. It also found higher rates of violations cited for faulty brakes on trucks weighing 91,000 pounds or more.
Reese said turning heavier trucks in a state where one of its main arteries — Interstate 81 — is already notorious because of its heavy and arguably dangerous levels of truck traffic would be a mistake.
“It is a treacherous stretch for a motorist,” Reese said.
The bills — HB1276 sponsored by Garrett and a companion measure, SB504, sponsored by Sen. Charles W. Carrico Sr. (R-Grayson) — are both in committee.
–This post has been updated to correct the Virginia House of Delegates bill number.