The Georgia House panel is rolling bills to allow larger rigs on state and local roads, despite safety and damage concerns

A state house panel gave the green light to a controversial trucking law that would allow large trucks on Georgia freeways to weigh five tons more than they did before the pandemic.

At a long, contentious, high-level legislative hearing on Thursday, companies pushing for higher weight allowances on Georgia’s roads squared off against city and county governments, the Georgia Department of Transportation and the state Department of Public Safety.

At the end of a six-hour hearing, members of the House Transportation Committee voted 18 to 11 to move forward with legislation that will increase the weight limit for commercial vehicles on state and local roads from 80,000 to 90,000 pounds. Republican Rep. Steven Meeks’ House Bill 189 garnered support from the trucking, poultry, forestry, agriculture and other industries, who said the increase will boost bottom lines while reducing trips.

The nationwide associations of city and county governments, traffic safety officers, and state agencies for traffic and public safety called the heavier loads a threat to public safety and increased wear and tear on the country’s roads.

As of March 2020, some of Georgia’s trucks have been able to carry heavier loads of up to 95,000 pounds due to orders from Republican Gov. Brian Kemp related to the pandemic and supply chain issues. Unlike HB 189, the executive orders allow only trucks with preferred products to receive permits to exceed the state limit of 80,000 pounds. State law allows farm trucks to be 4,000 pounds heavier than commercial trucks.

Tobey McDowell, owner of C. McDowell Logging in Butts County, said allowing his trucks to haul additional product since March 2020 has been a lifeline that has kept him in business and able to source much-needed new equipment and trucks to buy.

In 2019, McDowell said his company has nine trucks on the freeways, but currently five trucks can carry the same weight. Once the executive order expires, he worries about how his company can overcome the revenue foregone that would result from having to get more trucks on the road.

Tobey McDowell, bottom left, testified before the House Transportation Committee on Thursday about the lifeline provided to his lumber company with the ability to carry heavier loads. Stanley Dunlap/Georgia Recorder

“Before the (executive) order was signed to hold the extra weight, I would literally come home every day and say I needed a way out of this business,” McDowell said. “Since the governor signed that order, I’ve been one of the few people who can say the pandemic saved my business.”

Meg Pirkle, chief engineer for the Georgia Department of Transportation, described the bill as deeply concerning, noting that it would double the number of bridges restricting cargo sizes. The new weight limit would mean that more than 2,800 bridges will have weight limits, meaning more frequent detours for tractor-trailer drivers.

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

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

“It’s not good engineering practice to increase legal burdens until they break the bridge and then decide to back off,” she said. “We spend more on bridges each year than ever before. But with these weights, we will have more limitations than ever before, and the damage to our infrastructure cannot be undone.”

House Bill 189 has yet to vacate the full chambers of the House and Senate and be signed by Kemp before it becomes law.

“It’s important that we always work and move in the right direction, so that we take care of our infrastructure and enable our people in our companies to reach their maximum potential,” said Meeks. “Today, the transport and timber industry sector is under enormous pressure, not just an industry but the entire economy in Georgia, to bring products to the market more efficiently.

Kathleen Bowen, associate director for government affairs for the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia, said the bill is a jack of all trades, where any five-axle commercial vehicle could weigh an inordinate amount without guard rails. County governments control about 80% of local roads in the state.

“It shortens the life cycle of 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. That means these trucks we’re talking about today aren’t driving on the freeways, they’re driving on your local roads and bridges.”

Lamar County Commissioner Nancy Thrash said just a year after paving a four-mile stretch of road, the county will have to replace it at a cost of more than $600,000 after truck traffic damaged the road.

“Rural counties are struggling to maintain our roads due to budget constraints and inflationary costs,” Thrash said. “Our rural county roads can’t handle the same weight restrictions as the state highways and highways.”

Mike Giles, president of the Georgia Poultry Federation, said the higher truckloads can make a significant difference in the bottom line of what is estimated to be a $40 billion industry.

Giles cited a report by Georgia Tech’s Agricultural Technology Research Program that estimated that under a maximum weight of 90,000, the number of trips would decrease by 11% to 15% and result in a 13% drop in total mileage.

And that there are models that predict the increasing damage to roads would be largely offset by fewer trips, with a road with a 20-year lifespan instead lasting 19 years before requiring major repairs, Giles said.

“I am not aware of a single policy decision that legislators could make that would simultaneously improve our competitive position in terms of business climate in Georgia and also protect our air quality,” he said.

Republican Rep. Darlene Taylor of Thomasville said leaders in her southwest Georgia district do not support the measure.

“Both counties have experienced these conditions where (trucks) pull off the main roads and use our side roads. I’ve built bridges and roads that can barely accommodate a school bus,” Taylor said.

Safety concerns over heavier trucks

More than 100 local government leaders across Georgia have signed a letter urging state legislatures to resist the change in law. The letter campaign was coordinated by a national grassroots organization, Coalition Against Bigger Trucks, which says supporting the measure is tantamount to shutting down public safety.

Road Safe America founder Steve Owings said it was “crazy” that lawmakers were considering allowing trucks to haul significantly more product. Owings founded the organization after a tractor-trailer truck speeding 8mph killed his son in 2002.

“What you are talking about is tantamount to introducing a bill that says all of our largest trucks, which are obviously the hardest to stop from a physical point of view and are potentially the most dangerous, make these vehicles go 12% faster than all the other small cars “, he said.

The larger tractor-trailer debate also played out in Congress in 2015, when members rejected proposals for a 91,000-pound weight limit and lengthening of tractor-trailers.

In limited state testing, the US Department of Transportation found that the larger trucks had a 47% higher collision rate than the 80,000-pound trucks and that the larger vehicles caused $1 billion more in bridge repairs.

Meanwhile, supervisors from the Georgia Department of Public Safety’s Motor Carrier Compliance Division said they were concerned about having enough staff to enforce the new limits and about the dangers of larger rigs, which are harder to brake even under ideal driving conditions .

According to the Ministry of Public Safety, there was a roughly 15% increase in fatal accidents involving commercial vehicles last year, and last year was a record year for fatalities, with 52 truck drivers and 11 passengers.