Trucks traveling Virginia’s roads could get about 10,000 pounds heavier if legislation gets the OK from the General Assembly.
Virginia would be able to take part in a potential federal pilot program allowing for six-axle, 91,000-pound trucks. That’s up from the current weight limit of 80,000 pounds in the commonwealth, though exceptions in many industries like logging have allowed for more.
House bill 1276 and companion Senate bill 504 have pitted community organizations, the railroad industry and some truckers against companies that want to load more products into each truck they send out.
“This is incredibly alarming for Virginia motorists,” said Shane Reese with the Coalition Against Bigger Trucks, which is based in Alexandria. “These heavier trucks endanger motorists on the highway, damage Virginia’s infrastructure and cost taxpayers money.”
The federal pilot program the bills reference does not yet exist. So far, attempts to create such a program have failed in Congress.
But if the feds started one, the bills’ proponents argue, Virginia should be able to vie to participate for up to 15 years.
“We are not here asking you to endorse heavier truck policy today,” an Anheuser Busch representative said at a recent Senate Transportation Committee meeting. “We have nothing to fear from a data-driven process that would evaluate pros and cons.”
The brewing company, along with other corporate entities including WestRock and the Agribusiness Council that represents Smithfield Foods, told lawmakers last week that raising weight limits on trucks would allow them to be more competitive in their industries. And, they add, more products in each truck would lead to fewer vehicles total.
“Common sense would suggest that if we’re efficiently loading our trucks, there are going to be fewer trucks on the road, enhancing public safety,” said the Anheuser Busch spokesman.
Reese strongly disagreed.
“Heavier trucks do not mean fewer. It means more trucks on the highway,” he said. “There’s a handful of special interests pushing this, but the vast majority of the motoring public and taxpayers will end up holding the bags.”
Dale Bennett, president of the Virginia Trucking Association, said the organization’s membership is split 50-50 on the matter, but the main concern is “pure economics.”
“This would require retrofitting of existing trailers or new trailers,” he told Senate committee members. “The experiment’s going to be conducted at our cost without any benefit.”
The House bill’s patron, Del. T. Scott Garrett, (R-Lynchburg), said he would like VDOT to study the issue, but the department’s policy division administrator, Jo Anne Perry Maxwell, said it would be “very difficult to study a federal pilot we don’t know the parameters for.”
Those for and against the legislation have both cited a 2016 U.S. Department of Transportation report that looked into the issue.
Advocates point to a statistic that the 91,000-pound trucks reduce pavement costs. Objectors highlight a 47% increase in crash rates that USDOT found during limited testing in Washington state.
Ultimately, the report concluded officials needed more data “to fully understand the impacts of heavier and larger trucks on the transportation system,” and advised against making policy changes until those data are collected.
Many in the railroad industry also fear such a change could take away from their own lines of transportation.
Tim Bentley, a government relations specialist for Norfolk Southern Corp., said at the Senate committee meeting that Virginia should not be a “guinea pig” to test whether heavier trucks are beneficial.
He pointed to Norfolk’s Hampton and Terminal boulevards as examples of non-interstate roads that would be affected by more weight.
“That’s ultimately where these heavy trucks would have to go.”