The potato industry is backing a bill that would change the 20 year-old national truck weight restriction from a maximum of 80,000 pounds up to 97,000 pounds, which could allow them to ship 19% more potatoes at the same cost.

Potato grower-shippers and associations, along with other produce industry members, are pushing for a decision this year to allow states to regulate their own truck weight restrictions up to the 97,000 mark, if a sixth axle is present on the 53-foot truck. The groups face opposition from the Teamsters Union and others who site safety and roadway wear as their biggest concerns with a higher weight limit.

A group of supporting companies and associations, called the Coalition for Transportation Productivity, formed in late 2008. Among its members are the potato commissions from Idaho, Washington and Oregon, all off which have weight limits above 80,000 pounds in their own states.

“We’re grandfathered in to do that,” said Matt Harris, director of trade for the Moses Lake-based Washington State Potato Commission. “When the bar was set, there were states that were already moving at heavier weights, so they can still move freight at heavier weights.”

Problems arise when shippers want to move potatoes out of state.

“If you’re in Washington and you want to ship to California, you can’t move at 105,000 (pounds), you have to move at 80,000,” Harris said. “It would better for commerce if we were better able to get a few states like California to operate at 97,000 pounds.”

The proposed bill is a state opt-in bill, meaning it would leave legislation on weight limits up to each state.

In addition to the handful of U.S. states that have higher weight limits than the 80,000-pound national limit, Canada, Mexico and Europe all operate at higher limits.

“We’ve been at this 80,000-pound rate for a long time, so we feel a lot of these countries can move goods more efficiently than we are, and can produce goods less expensively,” said Travis Blacker, president of the Idaho Grower Shippers Association, Shelley.

Blacker and Harris both participated in an early April trip to Capitol Hill to meet with senators, Congressional leaders and their staffs about House Resolution 1799, the Safe and Efficient Transportation Act, which was proposed by Rep. Michael Michaud, D-Maine, March 19. Michaud sent a letter to involved parties April 15 to rally again for support of the bill.

In his letter, Michaud counters allegations of safety issues with research that shows trucks with more weight and more axles are just as safe, if not safer, than their five-axle counterparts. By adding a sixth axle with more tires and sets of brakes, studies by the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Transportation Research Board reveal similar safety statistics for higher-weight shipments.

 “With a fifth axle and extra tires, there are fewer pounds on the road than you would have with an 80,000 trucks, so it’s actually a softer footprint on highways,” Blacker said.

The bill itself proposes increased fees for trucks that operated at higher weight levels, the revenue of which would go toward maintaining and strengthening infrastructure.

The major benefits to shippers would be a reduction in cost and a reduction in environmental impact, proponents say.

“Most important, it’s a way to cut back carbon emissions,” said Kevin Stanger, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Idaho Falls, Idaho-based Wada Farms Marketing Group. “We could ship substantially more with an equal amount of carbon spent.”

Members of the coalition include the Colorado Potato Administrative Committee, Idaho Grower Shippers Association, Idaho Potato Commission, National Potato Council, Oregon Potato Commission, Washington State Potato Commission, Western Growers, Ball Bros. Produce, Wilcox Marketing Group, GPOD of Idaho, Larsen Farms, Potandon Produce, J.R. Simplot Co., Smurfit Stone Container Corp., Supervalu Inc., Taylor Produce Inc., U.S. Foodservice and Wada Farms Marketing Group. More information about the coalition is available at its Web site, www.transportationproductivity.org.