Ross Marchand: To avoid mile-long maintenance bills, maintain truck limits

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Ross MarchandAlabama’s roads and bridges are in a fiscal jam, as the state borrows more and more to keep things running smoothly. According to the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama (PARCA), the state shoulders around $1 billion in road debt, with debt service alone “projected to rise to $114 million annually. That level of obligation for debt service will continue for 19 more years.” Unfortunately, some proposals from Washington, DC would compound the problem and force Alabama to go ever-deeper into debt to banish corrosion and pot-holes. Despite reasonable proposals to increase public-private partnerships and reduce the need for dwindling gasoline tax revenues, some lawmakers and pundits seem dead-set on allowing more dangerous vehicles on the highway that would increase maintenance and first responder costs.

Many are calling for lawmakers to update truck limits imposed in 1982, and permit “Twin 33” foot double-trailers (read: really big trucks) on America’s roadways. While some proponents of relaxed truck size restrictions have painted the proposal as a panacea for lower costs, the change would lead to far more infrastructure costs down the road (pun intended). Taxpayers and customers must resist the allure of bold-sounding policies that open the door to billions of dollars more in repair costs and make roadways less safe.

Periodically, the fight to increase maximum trailer length from 28 feet to 33 feet remerges in the halls of Capitol Hill and the editorials of leading publications, with proponents recycling the same tired arguments. Allowing more size flexibility, they argue, will lead to fewer accidents due to less rollovers and more vehicle stability.

But vehicle safety arguments omit real risks that will likely increase accident costs on net. Even if rollovers were less common for Twin 33 compared to their current, shorter counterparts, accidents will be far more severe when rollovers do happen due to a larger “crash footprint.”

And, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, “Multiple-trailer trucks have more handling problems than single-trailer trucks. In general, the additional connection points contribute to greater instability, which can lead to jackknifing, overturning, and lane encroachments.” The Institute notes that safety studies tend to conflict, in stark contrast to the “proven research” touted by amendment proponents.

A point beyond debate, however, is the impact of Twin 33s on roadway maintenance costs. House Committee staff members have shown considerable foresight in warning “about the demands being placed on structurally deficient bridges…a significant increase in federal truck size could create greater funding needs.” Data shows a fairly straightforward relationship between vehicle size/weight and road damage, with a 9 ton big-rig inflicting roughly 40 times the amount of damage as a Hummer H2. Americans for Modern Transportation pushes back by claiming that any increased wear-and-tear can be more than offset by fewer trucks on the road.

These theories, however, run into a brick wall due to something called “induced demand,” whereas more trucks and car drivers simply take up any freed up road space. A 2009 study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Toronto found that if road capacity in a city increases by 10 percent, the traffic volume in that city will increase by 10 percent. As a result, roads are just as congested as always, only with the addition of mega-trucks that drastically increase wear-and-tear.

And, given that the Highway Trust Fund has required nearly $150 billion in taxpayer infusions over the past decade, these problems impact all citizens paying taxes. Proposed rule changes would mean a double-whammy for Alabamans, as greater infrastructure wear-and-tear would require increased federal and state taxes. Working toward less borrowing and taxation means keeping common-sense limits on vehicle sizes.

Additionally, structural reforms can ensure that existing gasoline tax revenues are more directly funneled to infrastructure maintenance.  Every year, for instance, Montgomery allows local governments a 95 percent matching rate for pedestrian and bike paths, funded via Alabama’s 22.91 cent per gallon gas tax. As the MacIver Institute points out, these kinds of programs encourage millions of  dollars to be spent on bike paths adjacent to quiet roads, bike rack programs and pedestrian walkways in proximity to pre-existing routes.

With better targeting of funds and sensible limits on truck size, taxpayers can have an easier time paying down Alabama’s looming transportation bills without raising gasoline taxes.

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Ross Marchand is the director of policy with the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.

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