Georgia considers heavier trucks despite official opposition

Logging company owner Toby McDowell of Locust Grove, Georgia, right, testifies in favor of higher weight limits on roads and bridges on Thursday, Feb. 9, 2023 at the state capitol in Atlanta. An industry-backed bill would raise truck weight limits in Georgia to 90,000 pounds. (AP Photo/Jeff Amy)

It’s the heavyweight lobbying battle of this year’s Georgia legislative session: Should the state allow heavier trucks on its roads?

The House Transportation Committee voted 18-11 on Thursday to advance a House bill that would increase the weight limit for large trucks to 90,000 pounds (40,800 kilograms). Now, most trucks are limited to 80,000 pounds, the same as the federal limit on interstate highways.

The bill advanced to the full House after a five-and-a-half hour hearing, despite a furious counterattack from the Georgia Department of Transportation.

“The fact is allowing heavier weights on the highways and bridges shortens the lifecycle of our bridges and pavements,” Meg Pirkle, the department’s chief engineer, told committee members, as state Transportation Commissioner Russell McMurry sat next to her.

Trucks hauling agricultural or natural resource products are allowed to carry 84,000 pounds on state roads except interstates. Logging, farming and trucking groups have long wanted a further increase, saying they could save money by hauling the same amount of freight over fewer trips.

“This is their business. This is their livelihood, and are we taking a look at that and saying ‘Hey, can we help them be more efficient?’ They pay taxes as well.” said the bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Steven Meeks of Screven, a farmer.

Opponents warn taxpayers will pay more for infrastructure repairs, essentially subsidizing truckers. They also fear that heavier trucks could pose more danger to people riding in lighter passenger vehicles.

McMurry estimated that it could cost billions more to rebuild damaged state highways and to replace state bridges that wouldn’t meet the new weight standard, suggesting Georgia might have to increase fuel taxes.

“We’ll have to redirect our funding and spend billions — let me say that again, billions — more in maintenance, rehabilitation and reconstruction rather than advancing many of the critical projects you all need in your districts,” McMurry said.

He also said the state would immediately post weight limits on another 1,400 bridges to bar 90,000-pound trucks, on top of the 1,400 that are already posted to bar 80,000-pound trucks. He said that could lead to long detours, or even make some parts of the state inaccessible to super-heavy trucks.

“You’re going to drive a lot further to go around, which costs money,” McMurry said.

The bill would put into law a move that Gov. Brian Kemp has already made for heavy trucks that get permits. The Republican governor has repeatedly renewed a supply chain emergency order, after he stopped signing broader COVID-19 orders, that allows some trucks of up to 95,000 pounds on roads. The current order lasts through March 11.

Thursday’s hearing packed a committee room with dozens of lobbyists and onlookers, as 30 of the committee’s members questioned witnesses for hours.

Georgia Poultry Federation President Mike Giles said a study shows each heavier truck degrades a road more, but that fewer trips would offset the damage. Pirkle disputed the point, saying fewer heavier loads may do more damage.

He said fewer trips would also emit less carbon dioxide.

“If I can carry them 10% more product, I don’t have to go back as often.” said Weyman Hunt, the owner of Godfrey’s Feed in Madison, which supplies cattle feed.

Toby McDowell of Locust Grove, who owns a logging company, said Kemp’s executive order had increased revenue enough that he was able to buy new trucks and trailers and is now delivering the same tonnage of logs with five trucks instead of nine.

“If the order goes away, a business such as my own, we lose that revenue,” McDowell said.

But city and county officials said big trucks are harming local roads and bridges, with more than 100 signing a letter opposing the weight increase. Nancy Thrash, a Lamar County commissioner, said a log truck damaged a freshly paved road in her county, which now it needs to be paved again.

“The weight increase this industry is asking for is unsustainable,” Thrash said. “Rural counties have a hard time keeping our roads maintained due to budget constraints and inflation costs.”

Steve Owings, an Atlanta man whose son was killed in 2002 when a truck plowed into his stopped car in Virginia, said increased weight limits would make trucks “demonstrably less safe.”

Owings, a co-founder of Road Safe America, said that physics show increased weight means it takes a longer distance for trucks to stop.

“This is a step, potentially, in exactly the wrong direction,” Owings said. “If anything, we should be finding ways to make big trucks safer in Georgia.”

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