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Kai Ryssdal: This week’s economic indicator of choice arrives on 18 wheels. Although, given the imposing size of the semis on the nation’s highways, you might have missed it. The American Trucking Association says its freight volume was down 11 percent in December from a month earlier. Still, the industry lobbying group is looking to consolidate its traffic. The Association is pushing to allow more super-sized trucks on the road. Sadie Babits reports from Portland, Ore.
SADIE BABITS: Keith Johnson has been driving trucks for 27 years. His rig is one we’re used to seeing on the highways — a single 53-foot trailer.
KEITH JOHNSON: And I’ll tell you what I deliver in one of these everyday. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love pulling a 53.
But today Johnson is pitching the idea of super-sized trucks for the American Trucking Association. These are rigs that pull two or three trailers and allow truckers to haul more freight. California bans triples but they are allowed in 23 other states. Johnson’s spin? These trucks are good for the planet.
JOHNSON: If you’ve got three drivers taking six trailers and you can cut that down to two drivers taking three trailers each, you reduce that carbon footprint, you’re using less fuel and you’ve got fewer big rigs out on the highway thus taking the congestion out of things.
Sounds good but independent truckers aren’t convinced. They see this as green washing over the real motive — profits.
JULIE POKRYFIKA: I hate big corporate people.
Julie Pokryfika owns and operates her own rig. She doesn’t like the idea of having more double and triple trailers on the road. Pokryfika says it’s just another way for corporate trucking companies to squash smaller operations.
POKRYFIKA: Yes, I can see where they will probably put more freight on these trucks and probably pay them less. So yeah, it’s going to work for them. It’s the same old American thought, you know. Let’s do more and pay less, right?
The ATA acknowledges its plan would mean fewer drivers. But states would still have the power to ban these huge trucks. Pokryfika says the reason to keep them off the road is safety.
POKRYFIKA: I think it’s not a good idea because you know not every area is a good area to pull that long of a trailer. The West it works because we’re not really a densely populated area. You get back East, it never would work. Too many people.
This debate over super-sized trucks is playing out against a dark backdrop. More than 140, 000 truck drivers lost their jobs last year because there’s less freight to haul. Even so a recession isn’t a bad time to rethink how truck companies do business. Donald Broughton tracks the industry for Avondale Partners.
DONALD BROUGHTON: If you look at any industry. Those that become more efficient in their operations are often the ones who come out of a recession as the most productive and hence the most profitable.
Broughton doesn’t buy the argument that new initiatives, like longer trucks on the road, will hurt independent truckers. He says the economy has already kicked out trucking outfits that weren’t efficient — companies that ran their fleets into the ground without the capital to survive a recession.
In Portland, Ore., I’m Sadie Babits for Marketplace.
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