A panel of legislators looking for ways to improve freight transportation is close to finishing its analysis and will post its report by the end of the month.

The report will shape deliberations by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on the next highway bill, due in a year’s time. The panel, chaired by Rep. John Duncan, R-Tenn., is composed of members of the T&I Committee.

A key issue, taken up in detail at a hearing Tuesday, is what to do about federal truck size and weight limits.

Some trucking interests are pushing to increase the limit from 80,000 pounds on a 5-axle combination to 97,000 pounds on 6 axles. Congress has a bill, the Safe and Efficient Transportation Act, that would allow states to adopt the higher standard.

Tom Kadien, a senior vice president at International Paper, made the case for the increase at the hearing.

International Paper, which spends about $2 billion a year on logistics, could improve its efficiency by 20% on 300,000 truck trips a year if the limit were raised to 96,000 pounds, Kadien said.

“Paper is heavy,” he said. International Paper’s 80,000-pound trucks weight out before they cube out.

“These trucks currently have 8 to 10 feet of empty space in the trailer when leaving our mills and therefore we require extra trucks to carry our products. With implementation of SETA in a particular state, IP would need four trucks instead of five to carry the same amount of product.”

He said the increase would not harm safety, citing a study by Paul Johnson, an engineering consultant formerly with Meritor WABCO that says the heavier trucks equipped with the sixth axle can stop in the same distance as the 80,000-pound, 5-axle truck.

He also took on the concern of the railroad industry that the higher limit would alter the competitive balance between trucks and rails.

“Let me be clear,” he said. “International Paper is not advocating for SETA with any plans to shift our rail freight shipments to truck.”

The company makes its mode decisions based on timelines, price and distance to the customer, he said. Its average rail shipment is more than 800 miles, compared to about 400 miles for truck shipments.

“We plan to continue using rail at our current level and, again, let me reiterate that we are the rail road industry’s largest box car customer. We simply want to make the trucking component of our supply chain more efficient.”

And then there’s the issue of cost. Kadien said that under the SETA bill, heavier trucks would pay a higher annual user fee -- $800 compared to the current $550 – to cover the cost of the additional wear to roads and bridges.

In the ongoing debate over truck weights there’s plenty of opposition to each of the points Kadien raised, but Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., chose to zero in on the effect of heavier trucks on bridge conditions and costs.

Nadler said, and Kadien agreed, that heavier trucks will accelerate wear and tear on bridges and that the trucks should only go on bridges that were designed to handle that weight.

Kadien said that’s why the SETA bill gives states the authority to decide whether or not to raise the limit.

But existing bridges haven’t been designed to that standard, Nadler said. Do you mean the heavier trucks should only be allowed on new bridges?

Kadien replied that some existing bridges can handle the weight. He cited the results of a recent heavy truck pilot project in Maine, where “they found no evidence of bridge fatigue or steel fatigue due to the heavier weight trucks.”

He also said that 15 states currently permit heavier trucks on some routes, to which Nadler replied, “Yes but the fact that a state follows a foolish policy doesn’t mean that we should.”

Nadler also said he’s not convinced it’s purely a state’s rights issue, since the federal government paid 90% of the construction costs of the Interstate bridges, plus a large portion of ongoing maintenance.

Nadler wanted Kadien’s position on whether or not heavier trucks should pay the entire cost increase for the wear and tear they cause. He cited one study indicating that even with an extra axle heavier trucks may increase road maintenance costs by 63% over today’s standard combinations.

“Should a heavier truck pay 63% more?” he asked.

Kadien said no.

“Should a 97,000-pound truck pay a proportionate extra tax, whatever proportion?”

Kadien replied that at a certain point the extra cost would make the heavier truck non-competitive.

“If it’s not competitive, that would argue that you shouldn’t allow it,” Nadler said. “My question is, if we do allow it why shouldn’t it pay its fair share?”

Kadien said he thinks it makes sense for the truck to pay its fair share.

“But if the 63% increase is correct, I suspect that you will never have a 97,000-pound truck on the road and you’ll have 20% more trucks on the road than you would if you allowed it,” Kadien said.

Nadler replied, “That may be, and it may be that the market is telling us something in that case.”

This exchange on just one aspect of the truck weight issue illustrates the difficulty of finding common ground.

A full analysis is under way at the Department of Transportation.

The study, ordered by Congress in last year’s highway bill, is looking at the safety and economic implications of changing the federal limits, including permitting the 97,000-pound 6-axle combinations.

It is comparing trucks operating at current size and weight limits to bigger and heavier trucks on the basis of crash rates and other safety risk factors, as well as the costs of effective enforcement, and the impact of the equipment on pavements and bridges. It also will look into the impact on truck-rail competition.

The study, which is due in a year, is supposed to provide the factual underpinning of what ultimately will be a political decision on whether or not to reform the federal government’s size and weight standards.