Transportation Issues Roll Along

The Hardwood Federation team in Washington has been hard at work this year focused on the trade dispute with China and educating high-level decision-makers in the administration and Congress about the effects retaliatory tariffs are having on our sector. While this issue has occupied the bulk of our attention and resources, there are important policy issues that are advancing in Congress in which we are also engaged. Primary among them is transportation.

In July, just before members of Congress left town for the annual August recess, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee approved a 5-year highway bill. The legislation, S. 2302 (America’s Transportation Infrastructure Act of 2019), would replace the current highway bill known as the FAST (Fixing America’s Surface Transportation) Act, which is scheduled to expire in the fall of 2020.

Two notable provisions in this comprehensive bill (which totals more than 500 pages) would grandfather truck weight limits on state roads in North Carolina and Kentucky – two key hardwood states – that are slated to become interstate highways. In North Carolina, trucks traveling on state roads may haul up to 90,000 pounds. Several state roads, including critical arteries that serve forest products facilities near the coast, have been posted with signs recently indicating that they will be converted to federal interstates. If this occurs without the enactment of a grandfather provision, the weight limit on these routes would automatically drop to 80,000 pounds, which is the maximum weight that trucks can operate on the interstate highway system.

Maintaining a 90,000 pound limit on these routes is critical in terms of fewer truck trips and lessened impact on infrastructure, reduced fuel consumption, and preserving the overall competitiveness of facilities that rely on freight and raw material that travel on these roads. The forest products and forestry communities in North Carolina have been very vocal about the need to secure this fix and have been working their congressional delegation with success.

A similar provision is included in the bill for Kentucky, where state roads have an 88,000-pound weight limit. Like North Carolina, several state-owned roadways in the Commonwealth are on track to be converted to federal interstate highways and would be grandfathered under S. 2302. The legislation has a long way to go, but we are encouraged by these two positive developments.

While only affecting two states, the inclusion of the grandfathering language is helpful in setting the table strategically for the enactment of the Safe Routes Act (H.R. 2453/S. 1509) as part of the overall highway bill reauthorization effort. Safe Routes is a simple, practical bill that would allow trucks loaded with raw forest products traveling at the maximum gross vehicle weight on state roads to access the interstate highway system at these higher weights.

As is the case in Kentucky and North Carolina, a number of states around the country maintain higher weight limits for state roads than are permitted on the interstate. This has created a situation where large trucks are forced to travel on two-lane roads through small towns, over railroad crossings, through crosswalks, stop signs, and school zones instead of on highways that are designed and engineered to handle these rigs. A few years ago, truck weight pilot programs were enacted for Maine and Vermont allowing heavier trucks to travel on the interstates. Data collected shortly after these pilots took effect showed that truck accidents decreased 25 percent and fatalities were reduced by 37 percent. In addition to increased safety, the Safe Routes Act will deliver efficiencies in the supply chain to our mills as it is often the case that the most direct route from logging site to a hardwood mill includes an interstate highway segment.

Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI), who sits on the influential House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, is championing this measure in the House and is working hard with his colleagues on the committee to include provisions of H.R. 2453 in any transportation reauthorization bill that the committee develops. The House is far behind the Senate in writing a new highway bill and is not expected to unveil a draft bill until early 2020. Our objective is to work toward including the Safe Routes language in the House’s version of a highway bill and then, subsequently, into any final deal that is sent to the president.

Dana Lee Cole is Executive Director at the Hardwood Federation, a Washington, D.C.-based hardwood industry trade association that represents thousands of hardwood businesses in every state in the United States and acts as the industry’s advocacy voice on Capitol Hill. She can be reached at dana.cole@hardwoodfederation.com.

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