Heavy trucks debate: Lives vs. livelihoods

Lawmakers divided over heavier trucks on Georgia roads
A  log truck prepares to deliver a shipment from a work site in Franklin this month. A Georgia House bill would allow heavier trucks to travel county and state roads. It's sparked a debate over business versus safety.. (Natrice Miller/ Natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

A log truck prepares to deliver a shipment from a work site in Franklin this month. A Georgia House bill would allow heavier trucks to travel county and state roads. It's sparked a debate over business versus safety.. (Natrice Miller/ Natrice.miller@ajc.com)

One of the hottest debates in the General Assembly this year is not a culture war skirmish. It’s a proposal to allow trucks to carry heavier loads on Georgia highways.

House Bill 189 would allow some commercial vehicles to carry an extra 4,000 pounds — about the weight of a midsize SUV. It has pitted some of the state’s largest industries against traffic safety advocates, local governments and the Georgia Department of Transportation. And it has scrambled partisan loyalties, with supporters and critics from both parties.

Supporters say heavier trucks would allow businesses to ship their goods more efficiently, saving money amid high inflation and a shortage of truck drivers. They say allowing the heavier vehicles could make or break some businesses.

“Saving the money on not having to haul so many loads makes it so we can be very efficient and make money doing it,” said Tobey McDowell, who owns a logging company in Jackson.

Critics say heavier trucks will take a greater toll on Georgia roads, costing taxpayers billions of dollars more for paving and bridge replacement. And they say heavier trucks will be deadlier trucks at a time when traffic fatalities are already rising.

“If anything, elected leaders should be doing something to make trucks safer, not more dangerous,” said Steve Owings, a traffic safety advocate who lost his son in a truck collision.

Whatever lawmakers decide will have long-term implications. More trucks are coming to Georgia highways as the Port of Savannah expands, e-commerce takes off and the state’s population grows. State officials already are discussing ways to raise billions of dollars more for road and rail improvements to accommodate a 30% increase in freight by 2045.

Even as they consider the big picture, lawmakers will be pressed to tackle smaller issues that nonetheless could have a big impact on Georgia residents and businesses — issues such as the weight of individual trucks.

Heavier trucks would ‘definitely help’

Tobey McDowell followed his father and grandfather into the logging industry. He founded his own company in 2010. He buys timber, harvests it and transports it to regional mills. He employs five people “in the woods,” plus drivers for his eight trucks.

Until recently, he struggled to make a go of it. Insurance, wages and other costs rose. It was hard to find good employees. McDowell thought about selling out and taking a mill job.

“This industry is really dying out,” he said. “It’s hard to find guys in the woods and drivers. Especially drivers.”

Then, in 2020, McDowell caught a break. Gov. Brian Kemp issued an executive order raising the maximum weight of trucks on Georgia highways.

Under state law, the maximum weight is 80,000 pounds. The law grants trucks carrying certain agricultural, forestry and other products a 5% variance, which means they can weigh up to 84,000 pounds.

Citing the need to keep freight moving amid supply-chain problems during the coronavirus pandemic, Kemp’s order increased the maximum truck weight to 95,000 pounds.

The order allowed McDowell to add two or three more logs to each truck. That may not sound like much, but it meant about 20 fewer truck trips a week, which reduced his expenses for fuel and drivers.

Suddenly, McDowell could afford to spend $3 million on new equipment. That reduced maintenance costs and downtime fixing the old equipment.

“You have so much you have to fight against,” he said. “That extra weight really gave us joy. It was like, yes! We could get out here and get something done.”

Kemp extended the executive order through the pandemic. But it recently expired. McDowell estimates going back to smaller loads will cost him $16,500 a week.

“I’m in about $50,000 a month worth of debt, not counting payroll and fuel. Just equipment debt,” McDowell said. “So when that order goes away, guess what happens?”

The logging industry isn’t the only one trying to cut costs. Will Bentley, president of the Georgia Agribusiness Council, told a Senate panel this week that his industry pays about $2.33 for every mile a truck travels. He said hauling bigger loads and making fewer trips would mean a huge savings.

“We’re an extremely low-margin, high-volume industry,” Bentley said. “You can imagine the impact this would have.”

That’s why the forestry and agribusiness industries are pushing hard for HB 189.

The version approved by the Georgia House would increase the variance for certain trucks from 5% to 10%. That would allow McDowell’s trucks to weigh up to 88,000 pounds.

It’s not as much as he would like. But he said it would “definitely help.”

McDowell said he understands the safety concerns about heavier trucks. But he said newer trucks have features such as engine braking that make them safer. And he said heavier loads will allow companies to invest in new, safer equipment.

“I’m one of the ones who bought all new stuff since Kemp signed the order,” McDowell said. “My trucks are better and safer now because I’m able to make money.

“When you can’t make money, guess what you can’t do?” he said. “Buy brakes. You’re more dangerous.”

Tragedy and a new purpose

In 2002, 22-year-old Cullum Owings was driving back to college in Virginia after spending Thanksgiving break with his family in Atlanta. He was a senior at Washington and Lee University. His brother Pierce, a freshman at the school, was in the passenger seat.

The Owings were traveling on I-81 near Lexington, Va., when traffic slowed to a crawl and stopped. Cullum also slowed and stopped. The tractor-trailer behind them did not.

It struck the Owings’ car, spun it 180 degrees and crushed it against a stone embankment in the median. Pierce suffered only cuts and bruises. But Cullum died before rescue workers could free him from the wreckage.

“Something like that bifurcates your life,” Steve Owings, the boys’ father, said recently. “There’s before and after.”

Owings found new purpose after his son’s death. The truck that struck Cullum was traveling 8 mph over the speed limit, and the driver was using cruise control.

Owings said he tried to understand “why in the world truck drivers would be driving this way.”

“The more I peeled the onion, the more problems I found,” he said.

Owings founded Road Safe America, a traffic safety organization that seeks to reduce crashes between trucks and passenger vehicles. He said he is not against trucks or truckers. But he has lobbied for safety regulations, and he opposes HB 189.

Traffic fatalities involving commercial vehicles in Georgia rose 36% from 188 in 2018 to 256 last year, according to the state Department of Public Safety. Owings believes HB 189 would make things even worse.

Heavier trucks, he said, will be harder to stop in an emergency — something he said many truckers already find hard to do.

Owings cited a nationwide enforcement campaign in May that resulted in 24% of trucks inspected being taken out of service. The most common reasons: brakes not working properly and bald tires. Making trucks heavier will only compound such problems, he said.

“The only question in truck safety is, how long does that vehicle need to stop safely in an emergency?” Owings said. “Only two factors affect that — speed and weight. They’re talking about increasing one of them.”

Safety isn’t the only concern for critics of the bill. They say heavier trucks will take a bigger toll on state and local roads. If HB 189 passes, they say it will cost billions of dollars more to maintain Georgia roads in coming years.

What’s more, 1,404 of the state’s 14,876 bridges already cannot accommodate the weight of the heaviest trucks currently permitted by law, according to GDOT. Increasing the maximum truck weight will require the agency to post weight restrictions on an additional 1,217 bridges.

That means the heaviest trucks will have to travel farther to bypass restricted bridges, increasing the wear and tear on roads.

Lamar County Commissioner Nancy Thrash said logging is a big industry in her community. She sees the benefits but also the costs.

In 2017, the county spent more than $360,000 to repave a stretch of Silver Dollar Road in her district. Today, because of logging traffic, she said it already needs repaving. Thanks to inflation, the estimated cost is now more than $600,000.

Thrash said she understands why industries want to have higher truck weights. “But at some point, somebody’s got to say, ‘What about the taxpayers?’ ” she said.

Plenty of debate

HB 189 has sparked plenty of debate among lawmakers — one hearing lasted six hours. When it passed the House earlier this month, supporters cited the need to support businesses and economic development.

“I get it. This is a tough issue,” said Rep. James Burchett, R-Waycross. “But are we here to grow in Georgia or are we here to stop growth?”

Opponents cited the dangers of heavier trucks and the cost of increased road maintenance.

“This bill is destructive for roads, but especially for county roads and bridges,” said Rep. Darlene Taylor, R-Thomasville. “These communities do not have the resources to maintain or continue to fix road abuse.”

HB 189 passed the House by a vote of 93-81 — receiving just two more votes than it needed to advance. The bill gained support and opposition from Republicans and Democrats.

The bill has morphed several times. As originally written, it would have raised the maximum truck weight to 90,000 pounds for all trucks. The version that passed the House applies only to trucks carrying agricultural, forestry and other products that benefit from the existing 5% variance. The maximum weight for those trucks would rise only to 88,000 pounds.

But the bill appears to be morphing again in the Senate, which may add more goods that would qualify for the higher weight. The Senate Transportation Committee heard testimony on the bill this week. It has not scheduled a vote.