33’ Twin Trailers, the debate rolls on

Tandem 33 ft trailers

Earlier this month the Transportation Intermediaries Association (TIA) held their annual meeting with Congress to discuss various topics important to 3-PLs and cargo owners. On their agenda was the issue of nationwide approval for the use of twin 33’ trailers on our highways. There’s been much debate within Congress and among truckers over the road worthiness and economic value of twin 33’s and the disagreement appears to be growing wider.

Keep it rolling

We are facing a crisis in our domestic freight market. Data compiled by DAT Solutions, a national freight exchange, indicates that as of this year only one in twelve truckloads will have equipment available to move the freight. This is the lowest ratio since 2005. Further, the American Trucking Association notes that America is also suffering from a lack of qualified drivers.

On top of an already critical situation, Gail Rutkowski, executive director of the National Shippers Strategic Transportation Council (NASSTRAC), stated in a recent article that within the next few decades over the road freight is projected to increase by at least 40%. What is the solution? More trucks on the road or more freight in the trucks?

Bigger is Better

Shipper associations like NASSTRAC, TIA and the NIT League have publicly supported a change in our federal highway policy to allow 33’ trailers on all our nation’s highways. They see a significant benefit to less than truckload carriers who could increase load capacity by 18.6% hauling tandem 33’ trailers over the twin 28’ers currently in use. Arguably LTL truckers could simply revert to 53’ trailers and loose only 3 feet of cargo space, but twin 33’s have been shown to provide 24.5% more space than a single trailer. According to FTR Transport Intelligence, a leading research and consulting firm, twin 33’ trailers could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 10% while reducing highway congestion by 14%. This is significant considering the additional freight demand which will be placed on over the road trucking in the coming years.

A 2014 study commissioned by Americans for Modern Transportation (AMT) showed that national approval for tandem 33’ trailers could have reduced vehicle miles traveled by 3.1 billion, saved 255 million gallons of diesel fuel and reduced hours of traffic congestion by 53.2 million hours. The resulting effect of these increases in productivity would have been a $2.6 billion savings in freight costs according to Dr. Ronald R. Knipling who conducted the research on behalf of the AMT.

Parcel carriers such as FEDEX and UPS have been testing the effectiveness of 33’s trailers in selected markets finding them safer and more efficient than the 28’ers currently in use.

So, who’s putting on the brakes?

Our national highway system has accepted 28’ twin trailers, which came into common use over the last 10 years.

Only four states (WA, WY, SD and UT) allow full access to tandem 33’ers. Eleven states including New York and Florida provide limited access on interstate highways which cross their borders. Debate has raged in Congress over the last three years on the expanded use of larger trailers. In 2015 FedEx testified at a congressional hearing on the national freight network. The data compiled by 8 LTL carriers supported safe and productive use of twin 33’ trailers across all interstate highways. In 2016 the Senate Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Committee posted a bill which included a provision to approve their use. In opposition Senators Roger Wicker R -Mass, Dianne Feinstein D-Calif, and Chuck Schumer D-NY opposed this amendment which led to its being dropped. In a statement to the Albany Times Union, Sen. Schumer cited concern over larger trailers on our aging highways and state roads such as SR 20 which runs west from Albany. Countering this the New York State Motor Truck Association stated that 33’ tandem trailers present no more weight than currently allowable configurations. “There is no push to put these on smaller roads…” the NYSMTA said.

In February, the Truckload Carriers Association (TCA) voiced their opposition to further consideration of twin 33’ trailers citing a presupposed equipment shift from 53’ers to double 33’s to remain competitive. Voicing their concern to Congress, the TCA also indicated driver training and insufficient parking for twin trailers would be problematic. What wasn’t stated was the fact that the use of twin 33’ers would be embraced primarily by Less than Truckload Carriers not the motor freight community at large. LTL carriers currently employ drivers trained to handle twin 28’ trailers. The additional 10’ of overall length should not pose a problem within that driver community. This March the AMT countered TCA objections by presenting a letter to members of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. The letter was addressed to Representatives Bill Shuster, Peter DeFazio, Sam Graves, and Eleanor Holmes Norton. It asks for the committee to consider expanded use of 33’ tandem trailers in future highway bills.

The Road Ahead

The debate rolls on. The TCA claims driver shortages would increase as carriers are force to retrain their operators to handle the new equipment. LTL carriers note they already train their staff to handle twin trailers and the increased size could be easily absorbed. Legislators have stated “Allowing the monstrous twin-33 trucks on our highways without a full understanding of the safety implications would be irresponsible and dangerous.” The ATM counters, “Twin 33’ trailers perform better than many other truck configurations on four critical safety measures, including stability and roll over.” Research, they claim, shows that twin 33’ trailers would result in 4,500 fewer truck accidents.

Proponents continue to lobby Congress to adopt a national policy, hoping the current administration will endorse extended highway use. So, where do we go from here? Is there enough support from cargo owners and LTL carriers to convince Congress? Or will “Over the Road” operators allow a handful of legislators to roll this issue off the highway?

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