Size, Weight Changes Would Maximize Transportation Benefits of NAFTA Digest of a presentation made by David Galt, administrator of the Motor Carrier Services Division of the Montana Department of Transportation.
Shortly after the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), various committees were established to implement the broad trade plan. The Land Transport Standards Subcommittee (LTSS) was developed with the idea of harmonizing differences in regulations that inhibit trade. These differences were called noneconomic trade barriers.
The goal was to have all noneconomic trade barriers harmonized in seven years. In an effort to gain state input, transportation officials from New York, California, Michigan, Texas, and Montana were asked to serve as advisors to the federal negotiators on the LTSS. I am Montana's delegate and have been involved from the first LTSS meeting in Mexico in 1994.
From the beginning of the subcommittee activities, it was apparent that vehicle size and weight would be the most complexand controversial issue. Size and weight generated such concern that a technical working group was created to deal with the issue. Other working groups were formed to deal with issues such as hazardous materials, traffic control devices, rail standards, and safety. With the exception of sizes and weights and safety, most of the other issues have met with some resolve.
Work is just beginning on the size and weight issue. Remember that Congress placed language in federal law forbidding any state from increasing truck length or weight above what was in actual operation on June 1, 1991.
Around the time of the first meeting of the LTSS in 1994, another issue related to sizes and weights was developing. That issue was designated trade corridors. In the West, a proposal was being considered to allow trucks that met size and weight standards between those allowed in Canada and those allowed in the western United States to run on Interstate 15 with one permit.
This proposal, called Canamex, was an effort to create a pilot program to study the benefits of streamlined truck regulations to safety, the economy, and other areas. Other coalitions started to develop with the goal of forming trade corridors and seeking extra federal highway finds to enhance their corridors.
To date, Congress has designated 43 NAFTA corridors. In addition, the Transportation Efficiency Act of the 21st Century (TEA 21) created a funding set aside to improve border crossings and designated corridors.
As these corridor coalitions sprang up, several groups began to think that NAFTA would be used to repeal the size and weight freeze. CRASH (Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways) generated a Dear Colleague letter to Congress with over 200 signatures asking that they forbid the LTSS from using NAFTA as a means to increase truck size and weight. Congress responded with a letter to the Secretary of Transportation stating that NAFTA would not be used to increase truck size and weight.
This is very important. No changes in truck size and weight can be negotiated by anyone. If changes to the truck size limits do come about, they must be legislated by Congress and then be adopted in individual state statutes.
About the same time in 1994, Federal Highway Administrator Rodney Slater was requested to appear before a congressional committee on truck size and weight. At that meeting, Slater agreed to do a comprehensive truck size and weight study. Volume Three of that study was just released in draft form at the end of 1998.
Given all of these developments and concerns regarding truck size and weight, the US delegation essentially took size and weight off the negotiating table. One can see the dilemma. NAFTA called for harmonized truck dimensions, while Congress prohibited the NAFTA negotiating team from changing what is currently in place.
During 1996 meetings, delegates from all three countries decided that we would focus our attention on the vehicle configurations most commonly used in international trade. The vehicle combinations were five- and six-axle tractor-semi- trailers, and five- and six-axle doubles combinations using 28.5-foot trailers. Other vehicle combinations were left for a later date.
A three-sided comparison document was developed detailing the commercial fleets in each country, as well as size and weight regulations. The configurations that were chosen represent the predominate vehicles in the North American truck fleet, excluding single-unit trucks. Once these configurations were chosen, we agreed to focus on regulations that could be changed and to develop some type of framework that could be used to evaluate truck configurations.
At the 1998 LTSS meeting, we reached agreement that performance standards should be chosen and used as the evaluation framework. The idea was to focus on the four vehicle configurations and decide at what performance levels these vehicle configurations should be granted North American access on major routes. Vehicle configurations in excess of these standards may be permitted or otherwise allowed by state statute.
A task force was established with representatives from each country to develop the framework. In a series of meetings held in the past year, a set of performance criteria has been developed for the four designated vehicles. This report has received the approval of the full working group and will be presented to the LTSS for adoption at the fall meeting this year.
When you hear people mention performance standards, they are talking about regulations on the truck and trailer that limit a vehicle's performance. For example, we may want to limit off-track, which is the difference in tracking between truck and trailer wheels when negotiating curves. The length of the tractor wheelbase and/or the distance between the kingpin and the center of the rear trailer axles controls off-track. A performance-based regulation to limit off-track actually is a limit on tractor wheelbase and/or trailer wheelbase, which translates into a length limit on tractors or trailers. Just remember-performance-based regulations have a significant impact on equipment.
Lets try to summarize what is going on across the country that could affect truck size and weight: 1. Truck size and weight study. This study is important because it claims to have created a tool by which FHWA can analyze the impact of any change in truck size and weight. These tools assess the impact of various changes on bridges, safety, and highway geometry. I have not heard of anyone who thinks the study is any good. People dislike the study for different reasons.
In the West, we think it has a railroad overtone and does not treat long combination vehicles fairly. For example, the analysis tools call for staging areas every 50 miles on rural interstates, even in states that already allow long combination vehicles. Does it make sense to you that Montana would have to construct (at considerable expense I might add) a network of staging areas for truck combinations that have been operating just fine for over 40 years without them? It doesn't make sense to me either.
2. NAFTA. I don't think that the United States can continue to ignore the truck size and weight differences that exist between the three NAFTA countries. Some efforts will be made to allow changes in US size and weight limits. I believe that those changes could materialize via three different avenues. a. Performance-based standards. b. Trade corridors. c. Regional agreements between states.
Let's take a look at these three items. First, this movement toward performance-based rules needs to be monitored.
Performance-based regulations are gaining support in some circles. Throughout the truck size and weight study, references were made to performance-based standards. During the drafting and various updates on the study, the term performance criterion was referred to quite often. The LTSS committee chose to use performance-based criteria as a means to evaluate various truck configurations for possible use as "NAFTA" vehicles.
I don't want you to get the idea that performance-based regulations are a bad thing, but I do want you to understand that they could have an impact on the equipment in existing fleets. I think the use of performance-based regulations makes sense from a safety standpoint.
The criteria have been developed based on extensive trial studies. Most importantly, performance-based regulations offer a method that could be used to alter existing truck size and weight limits and neutralize criticism by stressing safety. If anyone intends to change truck size and weight limits, they must be able to address safety concerns. Performance-based regulations may offer answers to tough safety questions.
Another interesting point made in the truck size and weight study was the repeated reference to the six-axle tractor/semi-trailer combination. This vehicle combination was repeatedly referred to as a "NAFTA vehicle." While it is allowed in all countries, US weight limits reduce the efficiency of the combination to a point that it is not competitive in states with 80,000 pound weight limits.
It would not surprise me to see efforts to raise the US limits to accommodate the six-axle tractor/semi-trailer. In fact, I learned recently that a bill has been introduced in the House of Representatives to increase US truck weights and allow the six-axle tractor/semi-trailer at a maximum gross weight of 97,000 pounds.
Trade corridors have certainly become popular in the years since NAFTA was signed. There are 43 highway routes that have congressional designations as trade corridors. TEA 21 created a program funded at $140 million a year to address border crossing and trade corridor infrastructure needs.
In the West, we talked about the Canamex corridor for over 10 years. The idea was to designate Interstate 15 from Edmonton, Alberta, to the California/Mexico border. Canamex is meant to be a pilot project that studies the benefits from streamlined regulations and uniform size and weight regulations. The primary obstacle to Canamex is the freeze on truck size and weight contained in federal law.
One drawback I see to a corridor approach is that the greatest benefits go to the cities along the corridor. We experienced this problem in Montana on I-15 between Shelby, Montana, and the Alberta border. In 1990 we signed an agreement with Alberta to permit vehicles at Canadian weight to reach Shelby, a railhead 36 miles south of the US/Canada border. The agreement has worked very well, and some businesses have expanded along those 36 miles.
The trouble is others want to have the same benefit. It is very difficult to explain how some cities and producers get the benefits from lower transportation costs, while others do not. In my opinion, this issue is a show stopper for corridor projects that create different transportation options for producers in the same region.
Lastly, I would like to mention regional solutions. After serving on the LTSS for the last six years, one thing has become very evident to me: One limit for truck size and weight will not work in the United States.
In the West, distances are too great and population is too sparse to allow competitive transportation rates without the use of larger and more productive trucks. In the East, population density and heavy traffic are significant concerns that limit the application of larger trucks.
Most states in the West are focusing on this direction. Governors from several states, including Montana, have expressed a desire to repeal language in federal law that limits states from choosing truck weights that fit local and regional needs.
Regional solutions have several drawbacks, though. The first is getting any group of states to act as one body and develop uniform regulations. I have served as a delegate to the Western Association of State Highway Transportation Officials committee on Highway Transport since 1986, and we have not solved this issue.
Another concern is similar to trade corridor problems. What will happen to producers in states that border different regions? Will producers and shippers in Colorado get the extra benefit of reduced transportation costs, while similar shippers in Nebraska won't? Where will the boundaries be drawn?
In closing, I have no crystal ball that will tell you what trucks will be allowed in the next 10 years. NAFTA can not, in itself, authorize changes to existing state and federal truck regulations. Changes will require action in the federal congressional and state legislative arenas. I think some change is inevitable, and your best protection is to be part of the solution with one strong and uniform voice.