It has been said that if you think the problems that government creates are bad, just wait until you see its solutions. At a time when our nation’s infrastructure has been neglected for years and the prospects for additional funding for roads and bridges are about as likely as balancing the federal budget, legislators are crafting plans that will further destroy our highways. The U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is now considering legalizing much heavier trucks (up to 97,000 pounds for single-trailer trucks and over 100,000 pounds for double and triple-trailer trucks) on American roads.
The nationwide limit on truck weight has been 80,000 pounds (40 tons) since 1982 with 27 states allowing heavier six-axle trucks up to 100,000 pounds on interstate highways.
The Ohio members of the Transportation Committee are Representatives Jean Schmidt and Bob Gibbs. Ms. Schmidt has said that increasing weight limits will make it easier for the transportation industry to deliver goods more efficiently by allowing states to increase truck weight limits, saving money and fuel. She further stated that “.., modernizing 30 year-old truck weight limits is an important way to strengthen our economy,” and did not say that there would be any downside. Should we all applaud the picking of such low-hanging fruit?
While many legitimate safety arguments can be made against this proposal, I decided to look in terms of relative wear and tear to highways versus vehicle contributions by way of licensing fees and fuel taxes.
After designing and maintaining roads and bridges for the better part of four decades, some things have become very apparent to me.
Engineers and other involved technical and political people in 1982 were not stupid, nor did they “sandbag” weight limits by setting them at 20-25 percent under what could be responsibly and effectively carried.
Most local roads and many State roads are the products of evolution, not design. Over many decades, they progressed from earth to gravel to asphalt with no design or adequate construction from base to surface.
For the past 30 years, new bridges have been designed with recognition of the 80,000 pound restriction. Increasing weight limits will require each and every bridge’s capacity to be re-calculated with many structures requiring posting for restricted load limits.
Trying to juggle allowable truck weights with their proportional road tax contribution has always proved to be a difficult political exercise. More than one engineering study has determined that a legally-loaded 18-wheeler (80,000 pounds maximum) crossing a length of road causes an amount of wear and tear equal to that of 9,600 passenger cars (assumed to weigh 4,000 pounds each). Although the weight differential is 20 times, the damage is 480 times 20. How much more will it be if the 80,000 pounds becomes 97,000 pounds or more?
I calculated the relative cost to owners of cars and heavy trucks in terms of license fees and fuel tax paid per mile of travel by assuming 15,000 miles for a car and 125,000 miles for a heavy truck annually. The unaudited results were 2 cents per mile for cars and 13 cents per mile for heavy trucks, which indicates that trucks pay about 6.5 times that of cars. While some may argue with my resultant costs, I believe the differential should be very close.
Considering the relative damage (9,600 to 1) and relative tax contribution (6.5 to 1), do heavy trucks pay a fair share of road and bridge costs? Obviously not, but if they were forced into paying more, it would simply be passed along to the consumer. The only certainty is that the situation and proportion do not need to be made even worse.
Oddly enough, the 150,000-member Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, an organization of small-business truckers, condemns the increased-weight legislation by calling it the product of “big business interests.” Their statement is probably spot-on.
Not to be dissuaded, a spokesman for Rep. Schmidt’s office said a federal study found that raising truck weights could cut road repair expenses because fewer trucks would be on the road. Perhaps he would also think that this would be ample justification to permit 100-ton behemoths to ply our roads and highways.
The most important fact is: the last increase in the federal highway gas tax happened in 1993. Many people are neither willing nor able to pay more, and the cost to repair and maintain our roads and bridges under current conditions exceeds federal funding.
This current attempt to legislate heavier trucks with its supporting Congressional logic and rationalizations brought to mind this real-life illustration of how Washington manages our nation’s finances:
Consider the following rounded dollar figures:
U.S. Annual Tax Revenue: $2,170,000,000,000
Federal Budget: $3,820,000,000,000
New Debt: $1,650,000,000,000
National Debt: $14,271,000,000,000
Recent Budget Cut: $38,500,000,000
Now, remove 8 zeros (divide each by 10 million) and pretend that it’s a household budget:
Annual Family Income: $21,700
Money the family spent: $38,200
New debt on their credit card: $16,500
Outstanding balance on credit card: $142,710
Their budget cut (which some politicians would be proud of): $385
It can easily be seen that the recent federal budget cuts by Congress were nothing to brag about, but many members did. Maybe we should all prepare ourselves for bigger trucks and bigger budget cuts. Keep on truckin’, Congress.
Jim Surber is the Darke County Engineer and the president of the Darke County Democratic Party. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Viewpoints expressed in these opinion pieces are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these viewpoints or the independent activities of the author.