An Open Letter to the House of Representatives in Support of H.R. 612: Truck-Weight Reform is Pro-Taxpayer Transportation Policy!

Dear Representative:

As you evaluate transportation policy options for the coming year, the 362,000-member National Taxpayers Union (NTU) urges you to cosponsor and work toward quick enactment of H.R. 612, the Safe and Efficient Transportation Act (SETA). Passage of SETA, which would provide states the flexibility to integrate their Interstate Highway systems with other roads that allow heavier trucks, is one of NTU’s top transportation priorities. SETA would afford each state the option to raise truck-weight limits on Interstate Highways within their jurisdictions, from the current 80,000 pounds (five axles) to as much as 97,000 pounds (six axles). Such a move would provide a major boost to the economic potential of the nation’s highway infrastructure while avoiding additional deficit spending.

Although at first glance the connection between H.R. 612 and the interests of a citizen group such as NTU would not seem readily apparent, this legislation admirably embodies many of our organization’s principles. The seemingly minor regulatory reforms in this bipartisan bill, introduced by Representatives Michael Michaud (D-ME) and Reid Ribble (R-WI), could actually deliver major benefits.

In the next 15 years, freight volumes carried on trucks could double or even triple, making a solution that does not involve large public expenditures imperative. This legislation would help to address future congestion problems on the nation’s highways without massive infusions of higher taxpayer funding, thereby lessening the pressure for increases in fuel taxes or federal deficits. Additionally, H.R. 612 would improve the productivity and efficiency of our economy overall, saving considerable amounts of fuel, labor, and logistical costs for industries that depend on highways to ship their goods. Furthermore, bringing truck-weight limits more into line with our neighbors to the North and South (as well as those across the Atlantic) would enhance America’s international competitiveness, which has been damaged by numerous factors such as a burdensome tax system. Finally, the bill could provide ancillary benefits, e.g. reduced emissions from fewer trucks on the road, without resorting to detrimental schemes such as “cap-and-trade” national energy taxes.

On its fiscal merits alone, SETA’s passage is long overdue. Unfortunately, the 112th Congress made the decision to condemn this proposal to another round of study, a mistake you now have the opportunity to correct. After all, here in the United States, extensive pilot projects in Maine and Vermont have demonstrated the safety and viability of the six-axle configuration for heavier trucks stipulated under SETA. The Minnesota and Wisconsin Departments of Transportation, the University of Michigan Transportation Institute, and the National Academy of Sciences are just a few of the institutions that have explored the six-axle model’s many virtues, including better braking performance and less weight per tire on road surfaces.

Outside the U.S., where numerous trading partners have long embraced SETA-type weight and axle rules (sometimes going beyond these provisions), the results have been just as impressive. A summary of research compiled by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and centering upon Australia, Canada, Sweden, and the United Kingdom extolled many advantages from heavier truck weights, ranging from congestion reduction to fewer accidents. And, as a pointed reminder that our Tax Code is not the only uncompetitive aspect of law impeding a robust economic recovery, the OECD analysis noted that America’s cargo transportation efficiency ranks lower than that of all the other developed nations.

Opponents of H.R. 612 continue to mischaracterize the legislation’s aims and effects, calling it a “mandate for bigger trucks.” In fact, the bill simply provides flexibility for states to safely incorporate heavier (not “bigger”) trucks for Interstate Highways, like many already provide for other roads. There is no requirement that any state must expand its limits. Furthermore, H.R. 612 contains an extensive reporting regime that obligates states choosing SETA’s weight limits to oversee their implementation and transmit any findings on their impact to the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) after one year. A second layer of evaluations on safety as well as infrastructure maintenance would apply after five years. Plus, USDOT can, at any time, de-certify any section of Interstate Highway for state-optional SETA limits if, after due analysis, safety reasons warrant doing so.

We understand that some of your colleagues have raised concerns about the revenue implications of H.R. 612, particularly as they relate to the Safe and Efficient Vehicle Trust Fund. As a taxpayer group, NTU is always sensitive to such factors. For example, we noted in an endorsement of similar legislation from the 111th Congress (H.R. 1799):

Ideally, the salutary policy prescriptions in H.R. 1799 would come without the ‘sweetener’ of a bridge improvement fund created by higher fees. After all, with the aforementioned axle addition and the prospect of lower truck-traffic growth, the bill’s net effect would likely benefit bridges without any further expenditures.

Still, this does not constitute a reason to dismiss H.R. 612. We believe that Members must balance many revenue aspects here, including the fact that the fees involved are a prorated extension of an existing structure, to be paid by firms choosing to operate trucks at heavier weight limits. Also, new collections would be considerably offset by the companies’ lessened liabilities from fewer fee-paying trucks than they would otherwise operate, and by lighter taxes from reduced fuel consumption.

Federal transportation policy has often been marred by excessive spending levels, weak oversight standards, inadequate devolution to state governments or appreciation for private-industry innovations, tax increases, and misplaced funding priorities for inefficient transit and other projects. In the case of SETA, however, Congress has the opportunity to break from this unwise course, and make tremendous gains for taxpayers, private-sector productivity, and road users.  NTU’s members look forward to passage of this innovative and important bill; roll call votes will be included in our annual Rating of Congress.

Pete Sepp
Executive Vice President