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July 16, 2007 8:00 AM, EDT

FMCSA's Hill Backs Truck-Only Lanes

FHWA’s Capka Warns of High Costs
By Sean McNally, Senior Reporter
This story appears in the July 16 print edition of Transport Topics.

WASHINGTON — The nation’s chief trucking safety official endorsed the concept of exclusive highway lanes for trucking, saying that segregating commercial traffic from passenger vehicles would dramatically reduce the number of truck-related fatalities.
But Rick Capka, head of the Federal Highway Administration, warned that such a system would carry with it a hefty price tag.
In an interview, John Hill, head of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, said that by employing a network of dedicated truck lanes, “we’re going to dramatically decrease the fatalities related to commercial motor vehicles in this country.”
A system of exclusive lanes has been proposed by Patrick Quinn, a member of a national commission set up to plan future highway construction and finance (6-11, p. 1).
Quinn also is the immediate past chairman of American Trucking Associations and co-chairman of truckload carrier U.S. Xpress Enterprises.
Hill told Transport Topics late last month that he thought exclusive lanes would greatly cut fatalities from truck-involved crashes by “segregating the vehicles from one another, because that’s where we are killing people.”
Earlier this year, DOT reported truck-involved fatalities dropped to 5,018 in 2006 (6-4, p. 1).
In that report, DOT said that of those 5,018 fatalities, nearly 4,200 who died were either in other vehicles involved in the crashes or pedestrians.
In a separate interview, FHWA’s Capka said that while innovative congestion remedies, such as the truck network proposal, were needed, they would not come without significant cost.
In a July 12 interview with TT, Capka said, “We haven’t tried to put a price tag on that yet; all I can tell you is that it would be very expensive.
“We have got to solve our congestion problem in a way that will allow us to remain competitive in this growing, global marketplace, and it is probably going to require some fairly bold decisions, some bold thinking in order to make all this happen,” Capka said.
He added that a network of truck lanes envisioned by Quinn and the commission would be “a very expensive thing to resource.
“If that was the national decision, to pursue that kind of a solution, then in raising resources, we would have to be very innovative and creative, and I would say we would have to look to all sources of revenue and income to make that happen. And the private sector would probably play a role in that,” he said.
Capka went on to say he believed any truck-lane network plan would need some form of tolling to finance it.
“We’re going to have to have some way of pricing the system and funding it, funding the operation and maintenance requirements other than the gas tax,” Capka said.
However, he said he recognized that if trucking were asked to pay more in tolls or other fees to use this proposed system, they would need to see some return on that added cost.
“At some point it really does turn out to be a business decision; there has to be a return on that investment that makes it a wise investment,” Capka said.
He noted that with truck-only lanes, FHWA might broach the subject of increased size and weight limits for trucks.
Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told TT in a June 19 interview he had concerns about the way such a system would be financed.
“Trucks do not like tolls, and I agree with them. It’s difficult to pass tolls on to their shippers or consumers,” Oberstar said.
Most proposals for truck-only lanes, including a scrapped plan to add them to Interstate 81 in Virginia, contain some type of toll or extra fee. In the past, trucking has been vocally opposed to truck-only toll lanes (2-14-05, p. 15), when the use of the lanes is mandatory.
Oberstar and Transportation Secretary Mary Peters have said they would be open to exploring changes to the federal size and weight rules provided there was some separation between the larger trucks and other traffic (2-26, p. 1; 3-5, p. 4)
Trucking and safety enforcement officials backed Hill’s assessment that separating trucks and passenger vehicles would improve the industry’s safety.
“Using common sense, applying relevant safety data and putting all the other issues aside, separating cars and trucks would likely result in improved safety, not only for commercial vehicles, but for the highway system generally,” said Dave Osiecki, vice president of safety, security and operations for American Trucking Associations.
“From a safety perspective, looking at the data, especially from the Large Truck Crash Causation Study, 27% of the accidents were single-vehicle crashes, all the other ones were multi-vehicle,” said Steve Keppler, director of policy and programs for the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance. “If you separate out those, and you put like vehicles together, that certainly should improve safety,” he added.