WASHINGTON -- Standing before a 91-foot twin-trailer truck parked at the foot of the U.S. Capitol, three senior lawmakers from both parties said Wednesday they will fight to keep Congress from endangering motorists by permitting 10-foot-longer semis on the highways, even though 38 states bar them.
Republican Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi led a news conference calling on his congressional colleagues to block the measure, which he said has zoomed to passage in the House of Representatives and is headed for the Senate floor without a hearing or a comprehensive safety examination.
"Why should Washington, D.C., be telling these states that we know better about safety decisions at the local level?" Wicker asked.
Among states that now ban the longer tandem trucks are New York, California, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas and Washington. States that allow them include mainly wide-open Western states such as Alaska, Arizona, Idaho, Oregon, Montana, Nevada and Wyoming, but Florida does as well.
Wicker was joined by a diverse group opposing the bill, including Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut; Teamsters President James Hoffa representing truck drivers; safety advocates; and a sizable slice of the smaller trucking firms.
The truck expansion measure offered by Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., passed the Senate Appropriations Committee by a single vote. Committee Chairman Thad Cochran, R-Miss., opposed it.
Feinstein called it "one of the worst proposals I've seen in my lifetime of public service," noting the twin-trailer assembly is longer than an eight-story building is tall.
She said officials in California's Transportation Department told her "they do not support these trucks because of longer passing distances, difficulty merging and ramps, turn lanes and rest areas that simply are not able to support them."
The U.S. Department of Transportation also opposes passage, "until they can further study this," she said. Trucks hauling double 28-foot trailers, the current maximum, have been blamed for about 4,000 traffic fatalities each year.
Hoffa and others dubbed the longer trucks "deadly doubles."
Major backers of the expansion, led by FedEx and United Parcel Service, formed the Coalition for Efficient and Responsible Trucking in 2014 to quietly push the legislation. Major shippers such as Amazon have loaned their support.
A coalition spokesman, Ed Patru, said in a statement it's been more than 30 years since Congress last improved freight-trucking efficiencies and that highways are now clogged with trucks.
Passage of the bill, he said, would "significantly reduce congestion by eliminating an estimated 6.6 million truck trips per year" and would save 912 highway accidents and 204 million gallons of gas each year, without exceeding current federal weight limits.
The coalition said experts also have found 33-foot trailers are more stable and cited a Transportation Department study concluding double-trailers are safer than single-trailer trucks.
"We don't think these things are safe," countered Wicker, conceding some states may feel their highway systems can handle the big trucks.