Despite fairly overwhelming opposition, it has been decided to allow the maximum weight of trucks on New Zealand’s roads to increase from 44 tonnes to 53 tonnes – although only on particular routes designated for this increase. Supposedly this increase will lead to the more efficient shifting of freight around New Zealand. This is what the government says anyway:
“Developing this permit system creates an environment where productivity gains in the range of 10 to 20 percent could be realised by using fewer trucks to carry a given amount of freight while enabling the impacts of heavy vehicles to be properly managed.
“This will help to reduce road congestion, operating costs, vehicle emissions and improve the road safety environment by slowing the increase in heavy vehicle movements on New Zealand’s roads.”
Trucks carrying heavier loads will not be any wider or higher than present vehicles, though a limited number may be slightly longer. Roads that are allowed to be used by vehicles will be specified in their permit and road controlling authorities will have the final say on whether routes applied for are suitable for heavier vehicles.
Any vehicle issued with a permit to operate at a heavier weight under a permit system will have to meet all appropriate safety requirements.
I must say I would be rather surprised if that result of this change was seeing 10 to 20 percent fewer trucks on the road, although it seems as though that’s not quite what’s being promised here. It seems a bit more likely that this change enables trucks to compete with rail for bulk, heavy freight – which is a rather odd move by a government that actually owns the rail system.
Hundreds of thousands of journeys in 53 tonne trucks will exponentially increase the damage to our roads. Increased RUC (Road User Charges) will not cover the increased costs of damage done to local roads. Neither will they cover the upgrading of hundreds of bridges in our road network to accommodate the increased loads.
“Most of the claimed productivity gains simply reflect the shifting of costs from trucking companies onto ratepayers,” said Mr Hughes.
“For example, benefit cost calculations for this decision were made on the assumption of an additional $150 million needed over 10 years for bridge upgrades. The actual cost of bridge upgrades could easily approach $380 million according to the Ministry of Transport’s own analysis. Trucking companies will not be paying for these additional costs. Motorists and ratepayers will.”
The economics of this issue are quite interesting really. The damage done to roads is not directly equivalent to the extra weight of a vehicle on it, but rather equates to what is known as the “Fourth Power Rule“. As the weight on the road from each axle of a truck increases, the amount of damage done to the road increases by the fourth power. This means that a 20% increase in axle weight results in more than double the road damage.
53 tonne trucks may well have more axles than 44 tonne trucks, but if they didn’t my calculation is that they would do roughly double the road damage. It appears somewhat unlikely that these heavier trucks will have to pay twice the road-user charge than the current 44 tonne trucks. If they do pay twice the amount, then I wouldn’t nearly have as much of an issue with this change.
The other issue is “who pays for the increased road damage?” Unless the heavier trucks are totally restricted to state highways, it will be ratepayers who end up picking up around 50% of the tab for this additional damage. So even if RUCs increased to fully compensate for the damage these larger trucks are doing, they would actually only compensate 50% for non-state highways. What makes this particularly interesting is that councils are the ones who own and control local roads (except, in the future in Auckland it will be the Steven Joyce appointed Auckland Transport Agency who do it). This means that they have the ability to say “no” to these heavier trucks. Because the larger trucks will be doing twice the damage to their local roads, and because the level of compensation councils will get from the increased RUCs (if they’re increased enough) will still not cover the increased cost to council, I would not be surprised if all councils basically did say “no”. I mean, why on earth wouldn’t they?
Which means that the whole thing is a bit pointless. I doubt that particularly many trucking trips can take place without any travel on local roads – particularly in Auckland where the state highways are usually motorways. I must say I will be rather amused if all the councils say “no” to the larger trucks.