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AbitibiBowater wants heavier trucks on roads

AbitibiBowater's plant in Catawba is among the businesses lobbying for a change in federal law that would increase the weight limit for some freight trucks, a move proponents say would reduce the number of annual deliveries needed, save companies millions and make roads safer.

The Catawba plant would save an estimated $5 million a year under the proposed Safe and Efficient Transportation Act (HR 1799), a bill being considered in the U.S. House of Representatives that would give states the option of raising the weight limit for trucks with six axles by 17,000 pounds.

Currently, federal law permits 18-wheelers to carry 80,000 pounds per trip. But many trucks reach that limit with plenty of room to spare in the trailer, necessitating the need for more deliveries. That, proponents say, means companies spend money on fuel and put unnecessary wear on their fleets.

The proposal would allow the gross weight of six-axle trucks to reach 97,000 pounds.

Barry Baker, human resources director for the Catawba plant, called the bill "a legislative and economic priority."

The Catawba plant makes 21,500 truck deliveries every year. Under the Safe and Efficient Transportation Act, the mill could reduce the number of trucks by 35 percent, or 7,525 fewer trucks. All told, the change would save the plant $5million a year, Baker said.

"This is a bill that would appear, to me as a businessman and as a citizen, to be a win-win," he said.

Aside from reducing the number of miles put on trucks and making roads safer by putting fewer trucks out there, Baker said the environmental benefits of HR 1799 are appealing because the reduction of trucks would lower carbon emissions.

Another purported benefit: Six-axle trucks carrying 97,000 pounds get 17 percent more ton-miles per gallon than five-axle trucks carrying 80,000 pounds, according to a 2008 study by the American Transportation Research Institute.

"If you need fewer trucks, you can have a positive effect on the environment," Baker said. "I think it's a good bill and it certainly could help the Catawba site become more efficient."

The bill does have its critics. Railroad companies are concerned it will drive more business to trucking companies; organized labor worries it will reduce the number of truckers needed.

"We think they're both wrong," said John Runyan, executive director of the Coalition for Transportation Productivity, the group behind the push for higher weight limits.

Debbie Johnston, director of U.S. public affairs for AbitibiBowater, said the bill can help the company lower operating costs, a move especially necessary as the company continues to emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The Catawba plant's cost-saving measures have included dozens of layoffs in recent weeks.

"It's a real priority for us to look at every opportunity," Johnston said, noting that the change would bring "significant savings" to the company if the $5 million saved at the Catawba plant held true at the company's five other mills.

Johnston and others have lobbied legislators - including U.S. Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C. - to make sure the bill gets attention. The bill currently has 53 bipartisan co-sponsors - Spratt isn't among them - but it has been stuck in a subcommittee since last year. Supporters hope to make it a part of the Highway Bill, which is set for an update later this year.

"There's a lot going on in Washington right now. So there's a lot of different distractions," Johnston said.

"We're trying to keep this on the top burner. But it's a bit of a challenge now."

Spratt said Friday he has not taken a position on the bill and needs to study the issue more. But he said he understands Bowater's needs.

"I'm for doing anything that improves their bottom line," Spratt said. "That's why I'm sympathetic."

Other major companies supporting the bill include Coca-Cola, Home Depot, Kraft and International Paper.

Advocates say they see the proposal gaining momentum.

"We think we're making headway," said Runyan of the Coalition for Transportation Productivity. "It's growing and we're being encouraged by what we see."

Other critics of the bill say heavier trucks will be bad for the nation's roads. In response, the CTP points to a U.S. Department of Transportation study that says the higher weight limit, and resulting reduction in trucks on highways, would save $2.4 billion in pavement restoration costs over 20 years.

"We think we've come up with a proposal that, when you net it out, it's better for the infrastructure," he said. Herald reporter Matt Garfield contributed.