Georgia House panel rolls with bill to allow bigger rigs on state, local roads despite safety and damage worries

Georgia State Capitol on mostly sunny day

by Stanley Dunlap, Georgia Recorder [This article first appeared in the Georgia Recorder, republished with permission]

February 9, 2023

A state House panel gave the green light to a controversial trucking bill that would permit big rigs on Georgia highways to weigh five tons more than pre-pandemic limits.

A long, contentious and high-stakes legislative hearing Thursday pitted businesses pushing for higher weight allowances on Georgia roads against city and county governments, the Georgia Department of Transportation and the state public safety department.

At the end of a six-hour hearing, members of the House Transportation Committee voted 18-11 to advance legislation that increases the commercial truck weight limit on Georgia’s state and local roads to 90,000 pounds from 80,000. Republican Rep. Steven Meeks’ House Bill 189 received the backing of the trucking, poultry, forestry, farming and other industries that said the increase will boost bottom lines while taking fewer trips.

The statewide associations for city and county governments, road safety advocates as well as state departments for transportation and public safety called the heavier loads a threat to public safety, while increasing wear on the state’s roadways.

Since March 2020, executive orders from Republican Gov. Brian Kemp related to the pandemic and supply chain issues have allowed some of Georgia’s trucks to haul heavier loads up to 95,000 pounds. As opposed to HB 189, the executive orders only let trucks carrying favored products to secure permits to exceed the state limit of 80,000 pounds. State law allows agricultural trucks to be 4,000 pounds heavier than commercial trucks.

Tobey McDowell, owner of C. McDowell Logging in Butts County, said the allowance of his trucks to carry extra product since March of 2020 has been a lifeline that kept him in business and able to purchase much needed new equipment and trucks.

In 2019, McDowell said his company had nine trucks running along the highways but currently five trucks are able to carry the same weight. Once the executive order expires, he said he worries about how his company can overcome the loss of revenue that would come with having to put more trucks out on the road.

“Before the (executive) order was signed of holding the extra weight, I used to come home literally every day saying I need a way out of this business,” McDowell said. “Since the governor signed that order, I’m one of the few people that can say the pandemic saved my business.”

Meg Pirkle, chief engineer with the Georgia Department of Transportation, described the bill as deeply troubling, noting that it would double the number of bridges that restrict load sizes. The new weight limit would mean more than 2,800 bridges will have weight restrictions meaning more frequent detours for the drivers of tractor trailers.

Pirkle dismissed the notion that fewer trucks will be on the road trips as more commodities will continue to be transported across the state to meet the needs of a growing population.

The governor’s executive order that allows up to 95,000 pounds for certain commodities and distances represented less than 1% of the commercial trucks on Georgia roads, she said. The average cost to replace bridges in Georgia is $5 million, Pirkle added.

“It is not good engineering practice to increase the legal loads until they break the bridge and then decide to back off,” she said. “We’re spending more on bridges per year than we ever have. But with these weights we’ll have more restrictions in place than we ever have before and the damage to our infrastructure cannot be reversed.”

House Bill 189 will still need to clear the full House and Senate chambers and be signed by Kemp before it becomes law.

“It’s important that we are always working and moving in the right direction so that we are taking care of our infrastructure allowing our workers in our businesses to operate at the maximum potential,” Meeks said. “The trucking and logging sector is under enormous pressure today, not just one industry, but for the broader economy in Georgia in the ability to get products to market and do that more efficiently.

Kathleen Bowen, associate director of government affairs for the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia, said the bill is a free-for-all in which any five-axle commercial truck can weigh an excessive amount without any guardrails. County governments control about 80% of the local roadways in the state.

“It shortens the life cycle for our roads and bridges,” Bowen said. “Counties are struggling to maintain our transportation network given inflation and our limited budget. The federal DOT rate is 80,000 pounds. That means that these trucks we’re talking about today are not on the highways, they’re on your local roads and bridges.”

Lamar County Commissioner Nancy Thrash said that just one year after paving a four-mile stretch of road, the county is having to completely resurface it at a cost of more than $600,000 after log-hauling truck traffic damaged the road.

“Rural counties have a hard time keeping our roads maintained due to budget constraints and inflation cost,” Thrash said. “Our rural county roads cannot sustain the same weight limitations as the state and interstate highway.”

Mike Giles, president of the Georgia Poultry Federation, said that the higher truck loads can make a significant difference in the bottom line for what some estimates say is a $40 billion industry.

Giles cited a report from the Agricultural Technology Research Program at Georgia Tech that estimates that under a 90,000 maximum weight, the number of trips would reduce between 11% to 15% and lead to a 13% drop in the overall miles trucked.

And that there are models projecting that the increased damage to roads would mostly be offset by fewer trips, with a roadway with a 20-year lifespan instead serving 19 years before it needs major repair, Giles said.

“I’m not aware of a single policy decision that the Legislature could make that could simultaneously improve our competitive position on business climate in Georgia and protect our air quality as well,” he said.

Republican Rep. Darlene Taylor of Thomasville said that the leaders of her southwest Georgia district don’t support the measure.

“Both counties have seen these conditions where (trucks) come off the main roads and use our back roads. I’ve got bridges out and I’ve got roads that can hardly take a school bus now,” Taylor said.

Safety concerns over heavier trucks

More than 100 local government leaders across Georgia have signed a letter asking state legislators to oppose the change in law. The letter campaign was coordinated by a national grassroots organization Coalition Against Bigger Trucks, which says that supporting the measure is tantamount to turning a blind eye to public safety.

Road Safe America founder Steve Owings said it’s “crazy” that legislators are considering allowing trucks to carry significantly more products. Owings started the organization after a tractor trailer traveling eight miles-per-hour above the speed limit killed his son in 2002.

“What you’re talking about is the equivalent of introducing a bill that says let all of our biggest trucks, which are from a physical standpoint are obviously the hardest to stop and the most dangerous potentially, let those vehicles drive 12% faster than all the little cars,” he said.

The debate over larger tractor-trailers has also played out in Congress in 2015 when members rejected proposals for a 91,000 pounds weight limit and to increase the length of the tractor-trailers.

In limited state testing, the U.S. Department of Transportation found that the larger trucks crashed at 47% higher rates than the 80,000-pound trucks and that the bigger vehicles caused $1 billion more in bridge repairs.

Meanwhile, supervisors with the Georgia Department Of Public Safety Motor Carrier Compliance Division testified Thursday that they are concerned about having enough staffing to enforce the new limits and about the dangers of bigger rigs that are harder to brake even in ideal driving conditions.

According to the Department of Public Safety, there has been an increase of approximately 15% in fatal crashes involving commercial vehicles over the past year, and last year was a record year for deaths, with 52 truck drivers and 11 passengers.

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