Washington — If Congress and the powerful US trucking lobby have their way, those massive tractor-trailer rigs barreling down the nation's Interstate Highway System will soon be longer and heavier than ever.
Critics argue that they will be even more deadly on the already cluttered freeways.
Nonsense, truckers reply. The larger rigs mean more goods shipped in fewer hauls -- which means greater efficiency and productivity for the economy.
The issue here -- now being fought out in Congress -- is: Should there be a nationwide, unified weight and length provision for trucks? If so, at what levels?
Five states limit truck weights to 73,200 pounds: Mississippi, Illinois, Indiana, Arkansas, and Tennessee. The weight is slightly heavier in Missouri, under recent legislation.
But most US political jurisdictions permit rig weights of up to 80,000 pounds. What that means, in effect, is a "barrier" of states in the Mississippi River Valley, "blocking" major cross-country trucking routes.
Raising the legal weight limits in those "barrier" states is "very important, " aruges William Mertz, an official of the American Trucking Associations Inc. What's happening, he says, is that trucks "load low" to meet the 73,000-pount limits, rather than filling to the 80,000-pound capacity. To fill to capacity would require a costly process of unloading a portion of the cargo in the Midwest, then loading that surplus in another truck.
For its part, the Senate earlier this year passed legislation that would increase the authorized truck weight to 80,000 pounds and length to 65 feet. No state could have lower "maximums" on its Interstate roads.
The weight-length legislation was actually a voice-vote floor amendments to a truck Sen. Charles H. Percy. The original Percy bill did not include the weight-length provisions.
The Percy bill to which the two provisions were attached gives the transportation secretary jurisdiction over working conditions of drivers, expands federal safety requirements on highways, increases fines for safety violations, and provides criminal penalties.
Most tractor semitrailers, according to congressional sources, are now 55 or 60 feet long. A dozen or so (mainly East Coast) states limit lengths to the shorter figure.
Federal control of truck weight and length dates back to the 1956 Federal Highway Act, which set up the Interstate system.
The weight-length issue is twofold, a House source says. "Although critics [ or larger limits] talk in terms of "highway safety,' we've really got a struggle here of states' rights vs. the highway lobby," the source says.
One factor explaining the caution of the Mississippi River-area states in accepting the higher tonnage is the fact that water seepage and moisture in their roadbeds lead to more frequent road-repair work than is the case in many other parts of the United States.
Increased weights, it is felt, could only exacerbate weak road conditions.