Rail-truck duel on hold to get highway bill through House

Posted Feb. 10, 2012, at 3:18 p.m.

WASHINGTON — The railroad and trucking industries have called a truce, at least for now, in their lobbying battle over increasing the size and weight of trucks allowed on interstate highways.

House lawmakers should “oppose any floor amendments that would modify any of the truck size and weight provisions” in the five-year, $260 billion highway construction bill to be debated next week, Ed Hamberger, Association of American Railroads chief executive officer, and Bill Graves, CEO of the American Trucking Associations, said in a statement.

“It’s important that you not have two very large, significant sectors of the transportation community at each others’ throats as the bill goes to the floor,” said James Burnley, a former U.S. transportation secretary and now a trucking industry lobbyist. “That undermines support in what is an already very, very difficult situation in passing the bill in either house.”

Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., brokered the deal to increase the chances of getting enough support to pass the bill, Burnley said.

The truce doesn’t extend to the Senate, where some lawmakers are expected to offer bigger truck amendments, said Sean McNally, a spokesman for the Arlington, Va.-based trucking group. The Senate is considering a two-year, $109 billion spending plan.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee voted 33-22 on Feb. 2 to delay any expansion in use of trucks weighing more than 80,000 pounds for three years, so the Transportation Department can study the potential effect on highway safety, roads and bridges.

The measure, as originally written by House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., would have allowed states to permit more 97,000-pound trucks on U.S. interstate highways and would have expanded use of double- and triple-trailers in states that now allow them.

The language on longer, heavier trucks prompted a lobbying and public-relations blitz before last week’s vote that included a YouTube video, posted by a railroad equipment trade group, that showed triple-trailer trucks weaving on rainy highways. Burnley accused railroad interests at the time of running a “multimillion- dollar propaganda campaign.”

Trucking companies like Con-way and shippers including Home Depot and International Paper were pushing for the language to improve efficiency as freight volumes are expected to surge. The rail industry opposed the language, citing a study that showed it would reduce railroad traffic by 19 percent.

Besides the railroads and their suppliers, big-truck opponents included highway safety advocates, truck accident victims, independent truck drivers, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and state highway patrols.

Before the deal was announced Thursday, the Railway Supply Institute, which represents makers of railroad equipment and technology such as Wabtec Corp. and Alstom SA, asked its member companies “to help us keep the pressure on your members of Congress by urging your employees to call and ask them to vote ‘no’ on bigger trucks,” according to a report in Railway Age, an industry newsletter.

The Washington-based institute told members their employees could call the Coalition Against Bigger Trucks toll-free hotline to be connected to their representative’s office. The coalition, based in Alexandria, Va., is a railroad industry-funded group that works with law enforcement, local government, engineers, independent truckers and highway safety advocates to oppose increasing truck size and weights.

“We are obviously disappointed that the weight provisions didn’t survive in the committee vote, but there are significant productivity gains in the bill,” McNally said.

Holly Arthur, a spokeswoman for the Washington-based railroad association, declined to comment.

The Highway Trust Fund, which finances U.S. road, bridge and mass-transit projects, may become insolvent as soon as October unless lawmakers lock in additional funding sources, the Congressional Budget Office said on Jan. 31. The Senate and House bills both authorize more in spending than the fund’s income from fuel taxes.

Since 2009, U.S. surface-transportation funding has continued through a series of legislative extensions, the latest of which expires March 31.

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