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In doing some research a while back, I ran across something that I thought was unique in my home state of Florida – something that I had to double-check to make sure it was accurate. It felt like an epiphany of sorts, a moment when you feel like you’ve stumbled onto a loophole or something that no one else has discovered.
On the surface, it appears to be the ultimate 2-for-1 situation. Per an update to the Florida Department of Transportation (DOT) Administrative Code 14-61 in February 2019, a tractor on the Florida Turnpike toll road can haul two trailers that can be up to 48 feet in length each, as long as the entire train is no more than 106 feet in cumulative length. The 2019 change now allows these “turnpike tandems” to exit the tollway and drive up to 15 miles on state roads as long as they’re traveling to another staging area.
While this rule theoretically allows a trucker to go from south of Miami (Homestead) all the way past Orlando to the I-75 interchange with almost two full-length trailers, what if it allowed you to go farther? Miami to Atlanta? Or even better, Miami to New York? Miami to California?
Imagine the impact to the industry if you could get all states to align on the same tandem-trailer rules? On the surface, it seems like it might solve so many of the problems that have plagued the industry: the driver shortage, diesel fuel emissions, additional hauling capacity to support the e-commerce boom and fewer trucks on the roads.
However, what I found is a hidden battle in the industry that basically pits LTL carriers and Amazon in a group named Americans for Modern Transportation (AMT) against basically every railroad association in the United States over federal laws and regulations, last touched in 1982, that dictate length and weight of commercial trucks on highways. The current clash makes sense – railroads have the most to lose and LTL carriers and Amazon have the most to gain.
Rules of the game
If you’re not familiar with the 38-year-old rules (the Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1982), it was an improvement on a 1975 law that set the maximum gross vehicle weight (GVW) to 80,000 pounds by designating a national network of highways where states must allow commercial vehicles of certain dimensions and configurations to operate. In other words, it’s the glue that helped bind the national interstate system as we know it today.
The AMT is currently lobbying to increase the length of tandem trailers from 28 feet to 33 feet across the United States (not tandem 48-foot trailers allowable on the Florida turnpikes), which would increase the overall length by a modest 15%. Of course, the AMT already has done the math for us on its website and does have some pretty mind-boggling statistics – 3.36 billion fewer miles and $2.8 billion in saved shipping costs based on 2018 data. Notably, there are already quite a few states in the West that allow for long combination vehicles (LCVs) on certain roadways – trailers longer than 28 feet in length, as noted by the AMT. The state of Florida is the lone outlier in the Southeast that allows these longer combination vehicles to operate.
Figure 1. Graphic from AMT showing which states already allow LCVs as of 2020.
The railroad’s main argument is that increasing truck size (and thus weight) would result in heavier trucks, which would lead to an exponentially faster deterioration of roadways. The Association of American Railroads asserts that by raising the legal weight limits from the current standard of 80,000 pounds GVW to 91,000 pounds would result in at least $1.1 billion in damage to the roadways based on the finds of a DOT study, of which carriers would only be paying for about 50% of the damage caused. And let’s be honest, funding progress in improving our roadways doesn’t seem to be going anywhere quickly.
Red tape and bureaucracy
The current infrastructure improvement bill was passed by the House early last summer and remains in the Senate. Dubbed “a road to nowhere” by Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo, it did include large spending increases on roads and transit, but also included provisions for pollution reductions and affordable housing among other things. The pork barrel bill has resulted in a stalemate. So much for cooperation to solve a very real infrastructure problem.
As for LCVs, the only parts of the country that allow for these commercial vehicles include most of the northwestern states along with Ohio/Indiana, New York/Massachusetts and Florida. Notably, there haven’t been any changes (additions) to these routes since 1991. With a little Googling though, the subject has certainly been explored in a number of different scenarios, including the USDOT’s Western Uniformity Scenario Analysis conducted a few years ago.
Design for change
So while we wait for the wheels of progress to slowly turn, we are left navigating a less-efficient system than could be realized. Change in industry always seems to predicate policy change and perhaps we’re at that precipice now with an insatiable demand for goods to be transported across the country. President Eisenhower’s championing of a federal highway system was a solution to the problem of an inefficient system of transportation across the country in the 1950s.
Perhaps, with the right leadership, we can solve the current problems we now face with rising unemployment from the COVID-19 health crisis and a crumbling infrastructure. An adaption of FDR’s New Deal for 2021 anyone?
For now, I’ll take the 2-for-1 deal that the Florida Turnpike offers. Perhaps it can serve as a shining example of what our industry can look like in a few years.
Research pulled from: