Congress Likely to Debate National Truck Weight Limits

by Leslie Wollack

The Congressional debate over transportation will likely include a discussion of national truck weight limits. Legislation to maintain the current maximum weight of 80,000 pounds for longer combination vehicles (LCVs) allowed on the 161,000-mile National Highway System has been introduced in the House and Senate for the last several years. Congress set the current limit of 80,000 pounds as the maximum weight at which a truck can operate on Interstate highways in 1991. 

Critics of these heavier trucks, including safety advocates, oppose them because they are harder to control and stop. For states and local governments, concerns include the damage to already stressed highways and bridges. Currently, an estimated 23,550 of the 116,523 bridges on the National Highway System are rated as structurally deficient or functionally obsolete, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Highway Administration, 

Proponents of the higher weight limits argue that allowing the heavier trucks would mean fewer trucks to move the same amount of goods and increase highway safety. Legislation freezing the current 80,000-pound limit on federal highways has been introduced by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) and Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.). The Safe Highway and Infrastructure Preservation Act, H.R. 1574, and S. 876 in the Senate, has 61 cosponsors in the House and four cosponsors in the Senate. 

Bill proponents cite a study by the State of Illinois, which found that raising the truck weight limit from the current 80,000 pounds to a proposed 97,000 pounds would cause $162 million in damages to highways above the current wear and tear on roads and bridges. 

Competing legislation by Rep. Michael Michaud (D-Maine) and Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) would allow trucks weighing up to 97,000 pounds on federal highways and give states the option to increase the weight limits. 

Legislation to extend federal surface transportation programs was adopted by several Senate committees before Congress left in December but did not address the truck weight issue. House leaders have said they hope to bring up transportation legislation when Congress returns this month and the truck issue will likely be on the agenda when the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee takes up the legislation.

NLC opposes increases in truck weight limits unless those increases are accompanied by simultaneous and sufficient increases in the heavy truck user tax. NLC policy states that no changes should be made at the federal level until the impact of increased truck length and width standards on highway costs and safety is assessed and reflected in highway user fees and appropriate safety regulations.