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New York Times story fuels the fiery truck size debate. How big will it get?

A New York Times piece highlighting the powers at play behind lobbyists’ efforts to sway lawmakers on a potential vote for larger truck sizes promises to throw fuel on an already fiery debate.

As Congress gears up to take on the renewal of the Highway Trust Fund, which expires in May, legislators will have the opportunity to include language expanding the current limits on truck trailer sizes in the U.S.The trucking industry would like to see language allowing for 33-foot trailers, as opposed to 28-foot trailers now allowed on federal roadways. On the other side of the tracks are the railroads, which stand to lose billions of dollars if trucks are allowed to carry larger loads.

The Times calls out both sides for “using tactics that could be seen as deceptive” in order to pressure lawmakers to take their view.

In the April 1 story, the paper casts several law enforcement officials as unwitting pawns in the railroads’ attempt to dissuade Congress from changing the current limits. In the piece, retired and active officials are shuttled off to Washington on the railroads’ dime to speak to the dangers larger trucks pose to highway safety.

“The railroad industry, through an organization called Coalition Against Bigger Trucks, has paid the airfare and hotel bills… for police chiefs, state troopers and sheriffs from states including Michigan, Ohio and Texas,” the Times reported. Many of those same law enforcement officials, however, “did not know of the railroad industry’s role in footing the bill for their trip.”

The story noted trucking industry has formed its own group, Coalition for Efficient & Responsible Trucking. The industry also bankrolled a University of Michigan study, which found that twin 33-foot trailers would be more stable than the current 28-foot models.“But in a fact sheet the trucking industry group put out last month, it did not make it clear that this was an industry-funded report.”

The Coalition for Efficient & Responsible Trucking did not respond to a request for comment Thurday and a spokesman for the American Trucking Associations, the largest U.S truck lobbying group, declined to remark on the Times story.

ATA has been a longtime proponent of longer, larger trailer sizes and is one of the primary supporters listed on the Coalition for Efficient & Responsible Trucking’s homepage. A spokesman for the Coalition Against Bigger Trucks, however, did respond, criticizing the Times for misrepresenting the group’s methods and standard practices.

Spokesman Shane Reese said he was nothing but open and honest the three times he spoke to the Times reporter writing the piece.

“It’s been our practice in all of our 20 years to make it abundantly clear about the source of our funding,” Reese told Thursday. The primary source of the coalition’s funding is, as the Times pointed out, the railroad industry. “We’re aboveboard, crystal clear on that. The railroad industry is listed on our website under our ‘About Us’ and listed on news releases,” Reese said. “But reporters prefer a narrative.”

Several rail trade groups, including the industry’s largest lobbying group the Association of American Railroads, are listed on the coalition’s page — not as sponsors or financial supporters, but as “other organizations opposed to bigger trucks.” Reese also took umbrage at the Times’ assertion that the coalition props up oblivious law enforcement officials.

“CABT does not pay law enforcement officers to lobby on this issue. When they travel to Washington, CABT reimburses normal travel expenses,” Reese said.

Reese added that law enforcement officials are routinely briefed on where the coalition finds its funds. “Regularly we say our primary source of funding is from the railroad industry,” Reese said. “Instead the reporter for this piece quoted a couple people who perhaps didn’t hear.”

Reese was adamant that CABT had in no way coerced or bribed law enforcement officials to speak on their behalf before Congress.“They would oppose longer and heavier trucks with or without CABT,” Reese said. “This is an issue that affects highway safety.”

It seems highly unlikely that Wednesday’s Times story will faze the discourse over larger truck trailers on American roads, many in either camp resolutely convinced Congress will act in their favor.

In an earnings call last month, Fred Smith, chairman and CEO of FedEx Corp., has said there is a “good chance” lawmakers will side with the trucking industry. It’s the “biggest thing the federal government can do,” to increase productivity, conserve fuel and reduce carbon emissions without damaging the U.S. roads and highways, Smith told investors.

“I think that’s highly unlikely,” Reese said Thursday. “If one were to review the 210 comments on the piece, you’d quickly see the public undoubtedly opposes bigger trucks.”

Source:  Reynolds Hutchins, Associate Editor

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