Serious challenges face our aging interstate highway system. If we are going to reduce congestion and improve safety without increasing taxes or spending, we need to make our existing infrastructure more efficient.
I was pleased to join Congressman Michael Michaud in introducing H.R. 763, the Safe and Efficient Transportation Act. Known as SETA, it would allow trucks that are more productive to use interstate highways -- and that could boost economic growth.
Generally, only trucks carrying 80,000 pounds or less are legally permitted on interstate highways. Federal weight standards have not been updated since 1982, and they are hurting both our environment and economy. The current weight limit forces many trucks to leave loading docks only partially full. This leads to more trucks on highways, more congestion, more wear and tear on roads, and wasted fuel.
SETA would help alleviate these problems by allowing states to raise weight limits from 80,000 pounds to 97,000 pounds -- but only for single-trailer trucks equipped with six axles, and only on designated routes. The sixth axle on these trucks compensates for the additional weight by maintaining braking and handling standards -- without making the vehicle any bigger or longer.
One of the biggest misconceptions is that SETA would be bad for roads. It's time to set the record straight.
Enacting SETA would make our highways safer. The biggest contributor to accident rates is the vehicle miles that trucks travel -- not the weight they haul. Since the United Kingdom raised its weight limit to 97,000 pounds for six-axle trucks in 2001, it has experienced exactly what we need in the United States. More freight has been shipped, but vehicle miles traveled have leveled off and the rate of fatal truck-related accidents has declined by 35 percent.
SETA would also help grow our economy by making the shipment of goods more efficient and leveling the playing field for U.S. companies. One business example speaks volumes about the bill's potential to have a positive impact. Under full implementation of SETA, MillerCoors would need 2,000 fewer trucks each week to meet current demand -- eliminating more than 1 million weekly vehicle miles traveled.
Additionally, the U.S. vehicle weight limit is the lowest of all our major trading partners. Canada, Mexico, and most European countries all have higher vehicle weight limits of at least 97,000 pounds -- putting the United States at a severe productivity disadvantage and complicating cross-border exchange.
Finally, more efficient truck transportation also has clear environmental benefits. Six-axle trucks carrying 97,000 pounds get 17 percent more ton-miles per gallon than trucks currently on our interstates. SETA would reduce our carbon footprint and allow businesses across the country to immediately minimize their environmental impact. Kraft Foods, for example, would save more than 6 million gallons of fuel nationwide and annually eliminate 73,000 tons of carbon emissions.
Six-axle trucks can safely ship more freight. And they are already in use around the globe. SETA is a safe way to get the most from our highways and promote economic growth at a time when we need it most.
Note: A version of this column by Rep. Jean Schmidt first ran as an op-ed in Roll Call on Tuesday, July 19, 2011.