Economy & Business

For Bigger Rigs

A UPS driver climbs into the cabin of a truck at the UPS facility in South Holland, Ill. (Frank Polich/Reuters )

Jeff Bezos of Amazon may be the world’s richest man, but he cannot do much business without the definitive blue-collar worker: the truck driver. Unfortunately, the truck drivers who are most likely to handle much of what Amazon is shipping are at the moment laboring under artificial regulatory constraints that should be removed.

The poles of the freight-trucking business are parcel carriers such as UPS and FedEx at the smaller end (moving packages that usually are 150 pounds or less) and full-truckload carriers at the heavier end (moving pallets of freight adding up to tens of thousands of pounds), and in between them is the growing LTL — “less than truckload” — business.

Amazon and other online sellers have disrupted more than the retail business: The volume and configuration of their shipments has had profound effects on shipping, especially on LTL carriers. LTL trucking allows shippers with smaller amounts of freight to have their goods delivered without having to hire an entire truck and a driver for their exclusive use. This allows for the most efficient use of transportation resources, saving businesses and consumers enormous sums of money in shipping costs — by putting one full truck on the road instead of two or three partly empty ones.

The “intermodal” shipping business is an incomprehensibly complex ballet involving cargo ships, trains, and trucks in various configurations. One of those configurations, the “Twin 33” — meaning two 33-foot trailers hitched together — is at the moment prohibited on the interstate system under federal law, though 20 states including Florida and Colorado permit it and long have done so without incident. Indeed, even larger configurations (Twin 53s and Triple 28s) are legal in some jurisdictions, and their experience suggests that these pose no special traffic or safety problems.

Congress should revise the current federal regulation that prohibits tandem trailers of more than 28 feet in length. The second part of the regulation, which caps the total weight of the trailers at 80,000 pounds, need not be changed to permit this. Indeed, one of the complaints from the trucking industry is that the current limitations on trailer length mean that the trucks often fill up well before they even approach their weight limits. All those argyle socks and headphones ordered from Amazon take up a lot of room, but they do not weigh very much.

Industry analysts expect that between population growth and the continuing shift to e-commerce, U.S. freight volume will grow by 40 percent in the next three decades, and it is likely that most of that freight will move on wheels rather than on rails. Trucks already carry about 70 percent of U.S. freight. The relatively minor regulatory reform of permitting Twin-33 trucking could allow carriers to deliver up to 18 percent more freight per truck trip, meaning fewer trucks on the road and less diesel burned per unit of freight. Because LTL carriers are looking to make their trailers longer but not heavier, the effects on traffic safety and highway maintenance would be negligible.

Predictably, the main opposition to liberalizing LTL regulations comes from the industry’s competitors, mainly railroad operators. We would hope that members of Congress — especially Republicans who claim to be broadly in favor of deregulation — would not allow narrow business interests to rely on regulation to gain a competitive advantage. There’s enough corporate welfare sloshing through the troughs already.

Commerce on the Internet evolves and adapts at a spectacular pace. The part of that commerce that happens off the Internet needs to evolve and adapt, too. Letting the big rigs get just a little bigger is one way to allow that to happen — a rare transportation improvement that doesn’t come in a trillion-dollar package.


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