Congress to decide if truckers may use 3 trailers nationwide Triple-trailer trucks headed here?

March 19, 1991|By Eliza Newlin | Eliza Newlin,States News Service

WASHINGTON -- They weigh up to 134,000 pounds, ride on 28 wheels and stretch 110 feet, more than one-third the length of a football field.

Thirteen states allow them on the highway, and the American Trucking Association wants Congress to clear the way for them nationwide.

They're triple trailers, and they'll be the subject of a bitter and expensive congressional lobbying battle that pits trucking interests against safety advocates and the railroad industry.

The trucking industry argues that bigger trucks will increase efficiency, cut costs for consumers and pose little safety hazard.

Congress will decide whether to let states permit heavier trucks on the road when it reauthorizes the Surface Transportation Assistance Act this year.

Currently, federal law prohibits additional states from authorizing triple trailers. Thirteen states, mostly in the West, allow triples, but they acted before the current federal law was passed.

Maryland traffic-safety groups are gearing up to fight the ATA proposal, which they said will make the state's growing highway problems even worse.

Citing an aging infrastructure and mounting congestion problems on the Baltimore and Capitol Beltways, I-95 and other major roads, opponents say Maryland cannot handle triple trailer trucks.

"There is no 'up side' to having giant trucks on Maryland's highways; everybody loses," said Gerald Donaldson, co-chairman of Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways, a national safety coalition that sprung up last year in response to the ATA proposal. Dubbed CRASH, the group is lobbying Congress and drumming up grass-roots opposition.

In Maryland, CRASH has mustered support from such groups as the Potomac and Baltimore chapters of the American Automobile Association.

"Motorists in Maryland have spoken loud and clear that they are not in favor of triple trailer trucks," said Robert Krebs, a spokesman for AAA Potomac.

One AAA poll of 1,200 residents living near I-495 in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia found that 92.8 percent did not want triple trailer trucks on the highway.

Marylanders have also opposed a measure that would raise the current size limit on tractor trailers from 48 feet to 53 feet. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Norman R. Stone, D-Balto. Co., has generated thousands of postcards in opposition, Krebs said. A hearing on the bill is scheduled Thursday.

Bill Bronrott, a CRASH spokesman, noted that more than 4,500 people died last year in truck-related crashes nationwide, and 100,000 people were injured. Car occupants are 49 times more likely to die in such crashes than truck drivers, he said.

The American Trucking Association charges that CRASH has received close to half of its $1 million budget from Itel Corp., a railroad equipment supplier based in San Francisco. The railroad industry opposes the bigger trucks, largely for fear of losing business.

The ATA points to increased fuel costs and new gasoline taxes as evidence of the need to improve efficiency.

A study by the Transportation Research Board last year indicates that trucks heavier than the standard 80,000 pounds will not damage highways, providing that the number of axles is increased, ATA officials said.

"The emotional side is just raising the spectre of larger and bigger trucks. But the challenge to the nation's policymakers is to get beyond that first emotional concern," said Robert Farris, the ATA's vice president for policy.

"There needs to be a safety concern about trucks and motor vehicles and motorcycles on the highway. But trucks now move about 70 percent of everything that's produced in this country," he said.

Safety has not been a problem in the 13 Western and Midwestern states that do allow triple trailer trucks, said Farris. Only experienced drivers with special training are allowed to drive the big rigs, which are permitted only under limited conditions and on certain roads, he said.

But CRASH officials say triple trailer trucks are always unstable and difficult to maneuver.

And they hotly denied any association with the railroad industry. The group has turned down $10 million from the railroads in an effort to maintain credibility, said Bronrott.

L He said that many truck drivers also oppose the triple rigs.

Maryland highways are particularly ill-equipped to handle bigger trucks due to congestion on major interstates like I-495, I-695, and I-270, say CRASH officials. The short distances between interchanges on the Capital Beltway, in particular, make it dangerous for heavy trucks to travel in the right lane, said Donaldson.

Another problem in Maryland is that aging access roads need repairs that the state is increasingly hard-pressed to fund, and most bridges are not built to accommodate vehicles heavier than 80,000 pounds, said Donaldson. The state's network of old and winding two-lane roads are virtually impossible for big trucks to maneuver.

Officials at the Maryland Department of Transportation said they are still studying the ATA proposal and have not yet taken a position. But the department has "serious reservations" about increasing the size and weight of trucks on the highway, said Drew Cobb, assistant to Transportation Secretary O. James Lighthizer.

"We have a lot of safety concerns about whether the roads are really designed and built to accommodate these kinds of vehicles," he said.

But, even if Maryland stands firm against bigger trucks, CRASH officials fear the state could feel pressure to go along if its neighbors adopt the ATA proposal.

"I think the threat will come to Maryland not so much from the Northern states, but from the West and the South," said Donaldson. "So the question is if Ohio and Virginia were ever to allow them, whether that would be a pistol to the head of Maryland. I think it certainly would."

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