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New DOT codes turn Florida trucking industry into transportation turf war

In a little-noticed bit of bureaucracy in early February, the Florida Department of Transportation updated Florida Administrative Code 14-61, a set of rules governing the nearly 500 miles of toll roads that comprise Florida’s Turnpike System.

The codes touch upon everything from tires to tolls. They also regulate the use of what FDOT refers to as turnpike tandems — two trailers hitched together behind a truck. The rules allow tandem trailers to be from 28 feet to 48 feet long individually, but no more than 106 feet long cumulatively, including the space between them.

For years, FDOT has allowed turnpike tandems to roar up and down the 304-mile-long main spine of the turnpike, from the Homestead extension exit at U.S. 1 south of Miami to the final exit before I-75 in Sumter County. But the rules allowed them nowhere else: Before exiting the turnpike, the trucks had to stop in one of seven staging lots, where the trailers could be decoupled and hauled away one at a time.

Those staging lots — particularly the one at I-4 in Orlando — have grown more congested in recent years, as online shopping has boosted the volume of goods shipped in small batches and put a premium on fast delivery.

As of Feb. 6, FDOT’s rule changes mean the turnpike tandems can exit the turnpike and drive on state roads for up to 15 miles — as long as they are traveling to or from a seaport, inland port or other designated staging area.

The revision was a victory for a handful of companies — including UPS, Amazon and Tropical Shipping, which moves freight to and from the Caribbean and the Bahamas — that had sought the change for years. FedEx was particularly pleased; the company is the largest operator of turnpike tandems in the state. FDOT issued 269 tandem permits last year; 51 of those went to FedEx.

It also thrust Florida deeper into an intense national debate over just how big trucks should be.

Since the early 1980s, federal law has limited trucks on interstate highways to two trailers. The trailers can’t be longer than 28 feet each or weigh more than 80,000 pounds combined. (The law grandfathers in more lenient state laws for state highways, which is why longer trailers are allowed on the turnpike.)

Those rules, however, have constrained what are known as “less-than-truckload” shippers — those that bundle smaller loads of freight for many customers together rather than carrying large, single-client loads. The less-than-truckload shippers often operate trailers that are full but well below the weight limit.

Led by FedEx, UPS and Amazon, the less-than-truckload industry has lobbied Congress to allow two trailers of up to 33 feet each, which would add an extra 10 feet to their tandem trucks — “twin 33s,” in industry parlance.

FedEx and the others say twin 33s can move the same amount of freight in 18% fewer truck trips, with nearly 3.1 billion fewer truck miles traveled each year, 255 million fewer gallons of fuel burned and 2.9 million fewer tons of carbon dioxide emissions. They claim longer trucks would reduce the number of accidents, lower shipping costs and help the industry deal with what has become a severe shortage of truck drivers.

FedEx, in particular, has been out front on the issue, citing its experience with twin 33s in Florida. In lobbying materials distributed to Congress, the Memphis-based company says it has operated twin 33s on Florida’s Turnpike since 2010 without a single accident. 

“In several years of operations in Florida and elsewhere, FedEx drivers have told us repeatedly that they find them to be more stable,” FedEx Chairman and CEO Fred Smith told the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure in February 2017.

Opponents contend that longer trucks are inherently more dangerous and do more damage to road surfaces.

But the fight over twin 33s is really a transportation turf war — opponents include full-truckload shippers fighting the twin 33 legislation because they fear ceding market share to less-than-truckload shippers, especially since full truckload shippers don’t want to invest in new trailers that would only help them with a fraction of their business.

The most intense opposition, though, comes from railroads, which fear losing business to bigger trucks with more shipping capacity. Jacksonville-based CSX has warned investors of the threat posed by longer or heavier trucks. “Any future … legislation providing for less stringent size or weight restrictions on trucks could negatively impact the company’s competitive position,” CSX says in regulatory filings.

The battle, heavily organized, has been going on for more than half a decade now. FedEx, UPS and Amazon have formed a group dubbed Americans for Modern Transportation, while the railroads have set up the Coalition Against Bigger Trucks. Both sides have financed research to support their position and have recruited law-enforcement and highway-safety advocates as allies.

Last year, FedEx and UPS signed on as sponsors of a three-day States and Nation Policy Summit in Washington, D.C., that was organized by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). In turn, the conservative, Koch-backed lobbying group approved a resolution in favor of twin 33s. “ALEC urges Congress of the United States to modernize trucking equipment standards and allow twin 33-foot trailers on American highways to replace the past federal standard of 28-foot trailers,” the group announced.

Meanwhile, in February of this year — a few weeks after Florida eased its own restrictions and permitted longer trailers on local roads — railroads sent a letter to every member of Congress. “As the 116th Congress considers solutions for repairing and improving the nation’s transportation infrastructure, we urge you to oppose any legislation that would increase maximum truck size or weight limits on federal highways,” they wrote.

The letter was signed by, among others, the Association of American Railroads, the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association, GoRail, the National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association, the Railway Engineering-Maintenance Suppliers Association and the Railway Supply Institute.

The railroads even warned against allowing states to set their own rules. “We also urge you,” they wrote, “to oppose legislative language that would allow bigger trucks in individual states, including any ‘pilot programs.’ ”

For all the talk of needed infrastructure spending, the deep partisan divide in Congress means few expect the issue will reach a definitive resolution anytime soon.

 

Read more in the May issue.

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