Congress

Senators aim to put brakes on push for 91-foot semitrailers

Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker stood with Vicksburg, Miss., Police Chief Walter Armstrong beside a truck hooked to two 33-foot semitrailers outside the U.S. Capitol on Oct. 21, 2015. Wicker and a bipartisan coalition are aiming to block legislation that would extend to a maximum of 91 feet the length of trucks on all the nation’s roads.
Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker stood with Vicksburg, Miss., Police Chief Walter Armstrong beside a truck hooked to two 33-foot semitrailers outside the U.S. Capitol on Oct. 21, 2015. Wicker and a bipartisan coalition are aiming to block legislation that would extend to a maximum of 91 feet the length of trucks on all the nation’s roads. McClatchy

Standing before a 91-foot twin-trailer truck parked at the foot of the U.S. Capitol, three senior lawmakers from both parties said Wednesday they will fight to block Congress from endangering motorists by permitting 10-foot-longer semis on the highways, even though 38 states bar them.

Republican Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi led a news conference calling on his congressional colleagues to stymie the measure, which he said has zoomed to passage in the House of Representatives and is headed for the Senate floor without a hearing or a comprehensive safety examination.

“Why should Washington, D.C., be telling these states that we know better about safety decisions at the local level?” Wicker asked.

Among states that currently ban the longer tandem trucks are New York, California, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas and Washington. States that allow them include mainly wide-open Western states such as Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, Montana, Nevada and Wyoming, but Florida does as well.

Wicker was joined by a diverse group opposing the bill, including Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut; Teamsters President James Hoffa representing truck drivers; safety advocates, and a sizable slice of the smaller trucking firms.

The truck expansion measure offered by Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., passed the Senate Appropriations Committee by a single vote. Committee Chairman Thad Cochran, R-Miss., opposed it.

Feinstein called it “one of the worst proposals I’ve seen in my lifetime of public service,” noting that the twin-trailer assembly exceeds the height of an eight-story building.

She said officials in California’s Transportation Department told her “they do not support these trucks because of longer passing distances, difficulty merging and ramps, turn lanes and rest areas that simply are not able to support them.”

The U.S. Department of Transportation also opposes passage, “until they can further study this,” she said. Trucks hauling double 28-foot trailers, the current maximum, have been blamed for about 4,000 traffic fatalities each year.

Hoffa and others dubbed the longer trucks “deadly doubles.”

I drove on the Ohio Turnpike, where there are 28-foot doubles. What did I see? I see people driving next to these rigs, endangering themselves because they don’t know how to handle it. The (truck) drivers don’t know how to handle it, either.

Teamsters President James Hoffa

Major backers of the expansion, led by FedEx and United Parcel Service, formed the Coalition for Efficient and Responsible Trucking in 2014 to quietly push the legislation. Major shippers such as Amazon have loaned their support.

A coalition spokesman, Ed Patru, said in a statement that it’s been more than 30 years since Congress last improved freight trucking efficiencies and that highways are now clogged with trucks.

Passage of the bill, he said, would “significantly reduce congestion by eliminating an estimated 6.6 million truck trips per year” and would save 912 highway accidents and 204 million gallons of gas each year, without exceeding current federal weight limits.

The coalition said experts also have found that 33-foot trailers are more stable and cited a Transportation Department study concluding that double-trailers are safer than single-trailer trucks.

“We don’t think these things are safe,” countered Wicker, conceding that some states may feel that their highway systems can handle the big trucks.

Blumenthal said the push for 33-foot trailers is “Washington at its worst – a secret special interest effort at the expense of ordinary Americans, our children and our families who are on these roads now.”

Police Chief Walter Armstrong of Vicksburg, Miss., who flew to Washington to speak on behalf of the state’s association of police chiefs, said he had been at the scene of about 50 semitrailer crashes over his career, including as a state trooper.

“The most important factor in a truck crash is stopping distance,” he said, noting that trucks hauling 28-foot trailers require nearly a football field to stop. He cited a U.S. Transportation Department analysis that found longer assemblies would need an extra 22 feet – a distance, he said, that could mean the difference between life and death.

Greg Gordon: 202-383-0005, @greggordon2

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