The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 put a freeze on long combination...

The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 put a freeze on long combination vehicles that the author doesn't think will thaw out anytime soon.

Photo: Jim Park

Having read Jim Park's recent commentary on LCV adoption in the US, I have to say I found it a thorough and excellent review of the compelling rationale for the expanded use of long combination vehicle nationwide for the benefit of freight efficiency, reduced fuel consumption and CO2 emissions and public safety. I commend Mr. Park on his research, writing and summary of conclusions. But I sadly have to say that all that and a $1.50 won’t get you a cup of coffee anywhere, anytime soon. 

Sorry, but the simple truth is that there won’t be any nationwide thaw in the 1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act's freeze on LCVs anytime soon; not in my lifetime anyway, nor probably in my children’s lifetime. I would put money on it.

To fully explain why, I need to go back a decade before ISTEA.

A Brief History of Trailer Size and Weight

In 1982, the federal government passed the Surface Transportation Assistance Act (STAA), mandating that every state wanting federal highway dollars had to allow 48-foot long and 102-inch wide trailers on the Interstates and primary US highway routes. This measure was broadly supported by truckers, carriers, and politicians alike because state size and weight laws were widely disparate and utterly confusing, which stifled interstate commerce and crippled trucking efficiency. Prior to 1982, allowable trailer sizes ranged primarily from 38 to 45 feet with 48-foot trailers allowed in some jurisdictions. Members of Congress were tired of hearing from constituents about the resulting interstate commerce dysfunction and then-president, Ronald Reagan, was on board as part of his effort to streamline government and promote economic growth.

STAA’s standardization of 48-foot trailers was a huge productivity gain for freight transportation in general but it did not have nearly as big an impact on the trucking industry as the change in trailer widths from 96 inches to 102. By increasing the allowable trailer width, carriers were able to load two pallets side by side rather than pinwheeling the second pallet and losing both loading time and valuable trailer floor space. For most operations, this added another two pallets to every load, over and above the additional pallets in the rear of the new, longer 48-foot vans. Increasing the width was a sea change because while it was easy to lengthen a trailer, widening a trailer just wasn't feasible. With the new 102-inch standard, the 1982 STAA effectively obsoleted the existing national trailer fleet and ushered in a multi-year bonanza for trailer manufacturers building 48-foot, 102-inch wide trailers.

Changes to trailer lengths didn’t stop with the STAA as intended, however. In the mid-1980s certain shippers formed a group called the 60NR Committee, which stood for "60 Feet No Restriction." Members of the group were mostly cube-sensitive shippers, such as bottle and can manufacturers, tobacco companies, etc. At the time, many states had laws on the books limiting the overall vehicle combination length to 60 feet. This meant that if you used a cab-over tractor rather than a conventional tractor you could actually pull a trailer as long as 53 feet.

Although states were largely resistant to any further changes to truck size and weight rules following the STAA, the members of the 60NR Committee campaigned vigorously state by state explaining to each governor that surrounding states were offering a more favorable manufacturing and employment environment by allowing 53-foot trailers. The 60NR negotiating tactic worked, and states fell into line one after another allowing 53-foot trailers.

It is interesting to note that while shippers were enthusiastically supporting 53-foot trailers, truckers were not that keen on the idea. The STAA had just forced carriers to re-tool their fleets to be competitive and investing in even newer, longer trailers was not on their wish list. I remember speaking with J.B. Hunt back in the early 1990s and asking him if he liked the new longer trailers and would he make them his new standard. He told me that he hated the idea of 53s and wished he could go back to 45s because he got paid by the load and 53-foot trailers meant fewer loads. Nevertheless, he understood he had to convert again in order to be competitive in the market. I recall him saying something to the effect, 'there’s always another idiot out there waiting to lose money to steal my customers,' or words to that effect.

The Influence of Railroads

The other major players in the unfolding drama leading up to 1991 were the railroads.

Railroading had suffered mightily in the three decades prior to the 1990s. Rail freight tonnage was down, and passenger service had all but disappeared in favor of cars and airplanes. Bankruptcies were up. Lines were abandoned, and tracks torn up. Boxcars had all but died. Rail piggyback wasn’t efficient, and the double stack container revolution was just beginning. By 1990, there were just nine Class 1 railroads still standing and they were struggling to redefine themselves in the face of competition from the recently deregulated trucking industry. 

Meanwhile, despite their fundamental problems, railroads remained hugely influential in federal, state and local governments. Fighting for survival, it was widely speculated that the industry decided to use their significant influence to fight further changes to truck size and weight regulations. Truckers were in no mood or position to fight back and Congress had grown tired of refereeing. The result was the landmark transportation bill named the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991, otherwise known as ISTEA, which included a freeze on changes to the size or weight of longer combination vehicles on the federal Interstate or primary highway network.

LCV Freeze

Contrary to what Mr. Park suggested in his commentary, there have been numerous attempts by very capable, well-funded and well-connected coalitions to re-visit the LCV freeze over the decades since it was enacted. Despite emphasis on transportation efficiency, fuel conservation and public safety, none of these efforts could even thaw the edges of the freeze. Each has met with fierce opposition from activists such as Ralph Nader of Public Citizen and Joan Claybrook of CRASH (Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways).

Throughout the nearly 30 years since ISTEA, there have been several demonstrations of triple 33’s and double 53’s which garnered a fair bit of support from key lawmakers on Capital Hill, but nothing ever changed. Speculation that the railroads funded organized opposition through CRASH has continued to swirl. 

The most recent effort to advance triple 33-foot trailers a couple years ago, led enthusiastically by FedEx and several other well-known LTL carriers, ran head-long into new opposition from their brother carriers at the Truckload Carriers Association, who strongly objected to the perceived competition they would see from these longer rigs. ATA’s lobbying efforts in favor of the change were hobbled and despite support from GOP lawmakers who then controlled both houses of Congress, the initiative fell apart.

It is worth noting that the trailer OEM I represented at the time built some of the 33-foot demonstrators at the demand of one of my customers, despite my warnings to them of likely failure in their efforts. I believed it then and sadly it's still true today;  regardless of the sound rationale for change in the interest of economic efficiency, reduced carbon emissions, enhanced public safety, the flag and apple pie, the freeze will remain until the rules on special interest lobbying and campaign finance are re-written to promote public service and responsibility over self-interest and getting re-elected. In other words, sadly, not in my lifetime.

Charlie Willmott is CEO of WillGo Transportation Consulting LLC specializing in the new and used trailer, container and chassis industries.  His career in freight transportation spans over four decades and includes executive sales and marketing positions in both public and private companies in manufacturing and leasing.  Find more at www.linkedin/in/charliewillmott/ including a series of recent industry related articles.