Gov. Ted Strickland's administration wants certain freight trucks to carry heavier loads on highways so that Ohio farmers and manufacturers can increase exports, a policy change unpopular with critics who say the added weight would further damage roads.
The plan, pushed by agriculture lobbyists to help spur corn and soybean exports, puts state transportation officials in a delicate position of balancing economic interests with the struggle to maintain Ohio's highways.
Overweight trucks carrying items such as construction equipment or other freight cause about $144 million in pavement damage to Ohio highways each year, according to a 2009 study by the state Department of Transportation. The trucking industry only partly covers that cost, paying about $97 million in taxes and overweight fees, leaving taxpayers to cover a $45 million shortfall.
The new plan calls for the weight limit on trucks carrying international shipping containers loaded with grain or any other product to be raised from 80,000 pounds to 94,000 pounds.
Other states, including Illinois and Virginia, already have higher weight limits, leaving Ohio at a competitive disadvantage when trying to expand exports to growing markets such as Japan and China, said Chris Henney, director of legislative relations for the Ohio Farm Bureau, one of several agriculture groups pressing for the change.
Supporters want the new rule approved by a panel of state lawmakers by October, just in time for the fall harvest.
That would allow international shipping containers that come to the U.S. carrying shoes or other consumer items to be filled with commodities at grain elevators for the return trip overseas, Henney said.
Containers left partially empty to meet Ohio's 80,000-pound weight limit aren't cost effective to ship, he said. Ohio had 4,113 grain-filled containers lifted for export in 2009 compared with 185,000 in Illinois, a state with heavier weight limits.
Ohio's agricultural exports totaled $2.9 billion in 2008, ranking it 16th in the nation, according to the latest statistics compiled by the federal government.
Critics of heavier truck loads include the railroad industry, which competes with trucks to move grain and other freight.
The new policy is being rushed without answers to how it will increase the cost of maintaining roads and sets a bad precedent that may lead to more trucks and even heavier shipments, said Art Arnold, president of the Ohio Railroad Association.
The state issues about 270,700 special hauling permits a year. Officials have not estimated how many more permits are likely to come from the weight change but don't expect to see a dramatic increase in the government's cost of maintaining roads, said Scott Varner, spokesman for the transportation department.
The new policy would be limited. For example, no out-of-state trucks would be allowed to carry these loads, and the trucks must travel on a select number of approved state highways and bridges — structures that can handle the extra weight, he said.
The trucks would unload shipping containers at Ohio intermodal facilities, where they would be placed on cargo planes or on trains bound for an international port.
"Moving freight more efficiently is a good thing, but where is the analysis of the energy use, air emissions and pavement impact?" said Jack Shaner, deputy director at the Ohio Environmental Council. "I think Ohioans deserve that full analysis before going forward."