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December 6, 2010 3:45 AM, EST

U.S. Needs Larger Trucks, Industry Executives Say

By Sean McNally, Senior Reporter

This story appears in the Dec. 6 print edition of Transport Topics.

WASHINGTON — Trucking industry executives, citing projected U.S. population growth and growing freight demand, said that increasing the productivity of trucks by making them larger or heavier was necessary.

“A growing nation means more people,” said American Trucking Associations President Bill Graves. “So we’re going to have more cars, we’re going to have more freight, so that means more trucks — and that means more traffic and congestion. Truck productivity becomes a critical element of how we resolve that growing issue.”

Graves spoke Dec. 1 at a forum in the Swedish Embassy on the future of freight transportation that was co-sponsored by Volvo Trucks North America and ATA.

Trucking, he said, would continue to be the dominant form of transportation for consumer goods, partly because in addition to the increasing population, Americans demand goods quickly.

“We’re in a hurry. We don’t have time to wait for anything. When people talk to me about the merits of short-sea shipping, there may be some place for that in our economy, but it’s not what people in our country are interested in,” he said.

Graves added that while he’s been supportive of the freight rail industry, “it is not where we are as consumers of products in America,” partly because of how slowly trains move goods.

Randy Mullett, vice president of government relations for Con-way Inc., said that to keep the economy growing, “transport has to grow with it. You cannot separate the two.”

Among other things, using more productive trucks can mitigate some of the byproducts of increased transportation, notably greenhouse gas emissions, Mullett said.

Referring to the Obama administration’s recent proposal to regulate carbon emissions from large trucks, Mullett said, “You’re left with very few options. And the last lever to pull, with the least expense to the country or the industry, is truck size and weight.”

John Runyan, executive director of the Coalition for Transportation Productivity, said he thought the nation could be heading toward more productive truck size-and-weight limits.

“Two years ago, no one thought they’d be running [97,000-pound trucks] on the interstates in Maine and Vermont today, and they are, due to the pilot program . . . that is likely to be extended and may be extended on a permanent basis in the next couple weeks,” he said.

“The landscape has shifted in Washington,” Runyan said. “We do think that we picked up support in the House and stand a very good chance of having this included in the [highway] bill. What happens in the Senate is another matter.”

Runyan’s group is pushing for legislation, introduced earlier in the House and Senate, that would allow states to permit 97,000-pound, 6-axle trucks on the interstate system. That bill has yet to get out of committee.

“It is not a perfect solution, and it is not a national mandate,” he said. “But, we think that politically it’s probably the only way we can proceed.”

John Woodrooffe, director of transportation safety analysis at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, said truck size regulations are “limited by policy and not technology, it’s as simple as that.”

Runyan said there’s been “no shortage of accusations by so-called safety groups . . . that charge that this is going to make highways less safe,” despite numerous studies from the United Kingdom, Canada and elsewhere that show declines in accidents when limits are increased.

“The public does not appreciate how significant the benefits can be,” Woodrooffe said.

David Congdon, president of Old Dominion Freight Line Inc., said fleets “can be safer with more productive trucks.”

Congdon said triple-trailers “have a lower accident frequency ratio than double-trailers,” and by increasing truck lengths, the industry will be able to reduce the number of truck-involved accidents.

The move to longer trucks also would increase the fuel efficiency of his fleet, Congdon said.

“We’re one of these that cube-out before we weigh-out, and currently we run 28-foot doubles everywhere across the country on linehaul and triple-trailers in the western states where we’re allowed,” he said.

“If we can take three trucks that pull six trailers and do it with two trucks . . . we will move more tons per tractor and we will increase ton-miles per gallon 25% to 30%, reducing emissions,” Congdon said.