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More big wheels

Green thinking gains momentum among truckers

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Driving on I-84 into Boise, it is common to get stuck behind a super-sized truck. Rigs that pull two or three trailers, often carrying mail or cars, aren't loved in all states.

In fact, Idaho is one of only 23 states that allow what are known as longer-combination vehicles or LCVs on the roads. California has banned triples all together. But an effort is under way to put more of these big rigs on the nation's freeways. The idea, according to the American Trucking Association, would make the industry more efficient, reduce truck congestion and cut pollution

Rep. Tim Corder, a Mountain Home Republican, runs a small trucking company. - JOYCE ALEXANDER
  • Joyce Alexander
  • Rep. Tim Corder, a Mountain Home Republican, runs a small trucking company.

The ATA says it's part of the industry's green agenda, but not all truckers agree.

Tim Corder runs a small trucking company in Mountain Home. He's also been a Republican state senator for District 22 since 2004. Corder doesn't operate doubles or triples, which he said draw the most complaints.

"It wouldn't break my heart if we didn't have triples. Those are the scariest ones," Corder said.

Julie Pokrywka—a 24-year veteran of the trucking industry—agrees with Corder. She owns and operates her own rig in the Pacific Northwest. For Pokrywka, the reason to keep longer combination trucks off the road is safety, though she is not as concerned in rural states such as Idaho.

"I think it's not a good idea because not every area is a good place to pull that long of a trailer. The West, it works," she said. "We're not densely populated, but you get back East and it never would work. Too many people."

Supporters of super-sized trucks say they make good environmental sense. Keith Johnson, who works for YRC Worldwide, one of the world's largest transportation providers, does the math.

"I hate to keep beating the carbon footprint but if you've got three drivers taking six trailers and you can cut to two drivers taking three trailers. You reduce that carbon footprint. You use less fuel. And you've got fewer big rigs on the freeway," explained Johnson, from one of the company's terminals where drivers pick up loads and deliver them throughout the West.

Johnson also touted the big rigs' safety record. And so did Kathy Fowers, the president of the Idaho Trucking Association.

"The safety record for doubles and triples are better than five axle semis," she said. "Before a company sends out a driver with triples, they have to meet criteria. They are your better drivers. They don't take risks."

Super-sized trucks do have a decent track record. LCVs are the most regulated vehicles on the road. Drivers work under special permits. They can only drive on certain roads and must get off the road during bad weather.

The push for doubles and triples is just one of six initiatives the ATA has outlined in its new sustainability program. Earlier this year, the trade group went before a Congressional subcommittee outlining its green agenda. The plan includes installing mandatory speed limiters in trucks and fixing bottlenecks in more than 400 urban areas to reduce idling time. The ATA also supports a national speed limit of 65 mph for both cars and trucks.

The ATA claims that by taking these steps and others, the industry would reduce fuel consumption over the next 10 years by 86 billion gallons. The organization argues that by requiring a 65-mph speed limit, it would cut the carbon footprint cars and trucks leave by nearly 1 billion tons.

Sounds good, but independent truckers like Pokrywka, aren't convinced. They see this as green washing over the real motive—profits.

"I hate big corporate people," muttered Pokrywka. She's been driving trucks for 24 years now. She survived sky rocketing fuel prices last year and is hanging on during the recession. These environmental initiatives come at a time when the trucking industry has been hit hard.

Last summer and fall, trucking companies watched the demand for shipping shrink. Retailers reduced their orders as consumers tightened their belts. More than 140,000 truck drivers lost their jobs last year. Pokrywka now sees her world shrinking.

"I think probably trucking will become owned by corporate people in time. A lot of the owner-operators are gone," Pokrywka said. She hunched over a bowl of ice cream at a truck stop and paused. "It's been tough. There've been days where I would slam that truck door and walk away. But we just hang in there."

She's hung in by hauling what she calls "a lot of beer" around the region. "And more [beer] since the economy has gotten worse," she chuckled.

Pokrywka isn't opposed to being green. She already keeps her truck speed locked at 65 mph. The governor on her truck—an automatic speed cutoff—won't let her go any faster. It saves on fuel she explains. A truck going 75 mph uses 27 percent more fuel than a truck running at 65 mph. It's a choice Pokrywka made for herself and she wants to keep it that way. So does Tim Corder.

He said it makes good business sense to watch how fast his drivers are going.

"We have some trucks that we govern and drivers who have a habit of going too fast, and we limit them." Corder just doesn't want the federal government mandating governors in his trucks. "Drivers that are responsible, we don't have to do that."

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association strongly opposes speed limiters for highway safety reasons.

Large corporate fleets like YRC Worldwide require governors on their trucks. That may work for them, Corder said, but not for owner-operators.

"I will defend that those people, owner-operators, know where their bottom line is to be efficient," said Corder. "People love to hate trucks, just look around. If you want to hate trucks then look around and tell me what didn't come to you on a truck?"

Seventy-two percent of all goods coming into Idaho are delivered by truck, according to Fowers. And most goods produced in the Gem State are exported by truck.

"People have to understand that if they don't want to pay more for their commodities, then they need to think about legislation, like proposing to increase the tax on diesel," Fowers said.

If such a tax came about, then that hike would eventually get passed on to the consumer, she explained. Gov. C. L. "Butch" Otter has proposed raising fuel taxes and creating a task force to study truck registration fees in Idaho.

The trucking industry has been working to cut down on emissions on its own. Many trucks, for example, now have auxiliary power units to run the sleeping compartment.

But the Environmental Protection Agency recently announced new emission and fuel economy standards for trucks and cars that take effect next January. The standards, which the ATA supported, are more of a sticking point for Corder than the American Trucking Association's environmental agenda.

"I'm glad that we don't have those engines that blow black smoke," said Corder. "I'm happy being more environmentally sensitive. But let's not go too far."

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