State DOTs leading from the front on heavy-haul permit automation

State DOTs leading from the front on heavy-haul permit automation

Extensive automation has allowed the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) to issue 99 percent of all heavy-haul trucking permits in under one minute from the time payment is received from the carrier. Photo credit: Shutterstock.com.

With more than 50 different sets of state and local regulations governing the movement of oversized cargoes within the United States, some states are automating the permitting process to reduce the burden on heavy-haul truckers and the shippers that depend on them.

Permitting for oversized and/or overweight (OS/OW) moves is generally handled by state departments of transportation (DOTs), but county, city, and even local municipal governments may have additional requirements. State DOTs rely on organizations such as the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials (AASHTO) and the Freight Operations Working Group to keep them up to date on OS/OW cargo issues, but due to a lack of a national standard, the issuance times — and administrative costs — of those permits vary widely depending on the route.

With no plans for a national permitting standard on the horizon, state DOTs are stepping up their efforts when it comes to automating the often-manual process of securing OS/OW permits. These efforts can reduce the regulatory burdens on shippers and carriers, and help reduce staffing costs for government offices administering the permits, according to state DOT officials that spoke with JOC.com.

Rob Simon, vice president of heavy haul for Bennett International Group, said speedy issuance of permits is a top priority for heavy-haul truckers today, but noted current automation efforts have their limitations.

“Automation is perfect, but not all the states offer it,” said Rob Simon, vice president of heavy haul for Bennett International Group. “Plus, at certain dimensions, when you exceed the automation’s [capability] with superloads, it really slows down and you sometimes have to switch to manual [issuance procedures]. Being able to reach those [DOT] people is difficult because automation has replaced staff. It’s a catch-22.”

The rush is on, not just to automate OS/OW permitting but to eliminate some of the nagging problems that slow down the process. Along with systems designed by state DOTs, a handful of software firms are also looking to address the issue, including Bentley System, Cambridge Inc., Pro Miles, and Pit Row Transportation Solutions.

Pit Row Transportation Solutions’ permit management software, for example, allows heavy-haul motor carriers to order multiple state permits for a given shipment with a single click, according to Michael J. Morgan, president of the Pell City, Alabama-based software firm. “The program looks at each state’s mapping system and identifies different routes simultaneously, spots restrictions, and analyzes and selects the most time- and cost-efficient route,” he said. Even so, the system has limitations, namely that it does not extend to the county or city level when requesting OS/OW permits.

Blazing a trail

A trailblazing state in automating heavy-haul permitting, South Dakota’s DOT (SDDOT) went partially digital in 2003, according to Dave Huft, research program manager for SDDOT in Pierre, South Dakota. “Our system is for all commercial vehicle permits, not just OS/OW loads,” he said. “For those, the carrier or a third-party permitting service can go online and describe the truck, length, axle configuration, weights, height, and width, and the system will find a routing automatically.”

Huft said a permit request for “plain vanilla moderate” OS/OW load is completely automated, and permits for such loads can be issued in “minutes.” Deeper analysis for larger or more unusual loads could take from one to three days. “We want to make sure the bridge you are crossing can support the load,” he said. “But you are talking really, really exceptional loads.”

South Dakota’s permitting system only covers state and federal highways, and trucking operators must deal separately with cities, counties, and municipalities for routes that transit local roads. However, Huft said very few South Dakota communities actually have permit requirements.

The benefits of automation are numerous, Huft said, even though “it takes money to buy the software and operate it. On the plus side, you save a lot of agency staff time and a lot of customer time. Another advantage, you have less chance of improperly routing a load, and you have fewer mistakes. And this may sound trivial, but in the olden days, customers had to use PayPal to pay for a permit. Now the systems accept credit cards.” 

Extensive automation has allowed the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) to shrink its permitting staff from 37 full-time employees in 2012 to just six workers today, said Geno Koehler, IDOT’s permit unit chief. Designed internally, the Illinois Transportation Automated Permit (ITAP) system allows for the automated issuance of nearly all heavy-haul trucking permits in under one minute from the time payment is received from the carrier, according to Koehler.

Prior to the implementation of ITAP, permits were still issued manually, and it could take five days for a bridge analysis and 10 days for route inspection. “We’d send a guy out in the field to make sure a truck could turn a corner,” Koehler said. Today, computers have replaced an entire engineering department and turnaround times for permits average less than 18 hours, he said.

In addition, digital record keeping within ITAP allows repeat users to pre-populate certain information, further streamlining the process. “We have a library of permits, trucks, and company fleets. A customer moving identical wind farm components does not have to type and retype requests,” Koehler said.

Despite the improvements, Koehler said IDOT OS/OW permitting fees, which can be as low as $15 per load, “have not changed in 30 years.”

In Virginia, routing and permitting has been automated for loads up to 115,000 pounds (52 metric tons), 14 feet in height, and 14 feet in width, but anything larger requires a manual load analysis, according to Brandi Thorpe, deputy director of hauling permits for the commonwealth’s Department of Motor Vehicles.

Trucking operators “click on the map, pick your route, and our automated solution will analyze the route and determine if there are any problems,” explained Thorpe. “The customer can either route around the problem or we will do it for them. If there are no [hiccups], the permit is issued in three to five minutes, start to finish.”

For OS/OW loads exceeding 52 mt, manual route analysis and permit issuance can take Thorpe’s 12-person team anywhere from three to 10 business days. But Thorpe said Virginia plans to continue investing in the technology, eventually allowing for the automation of permitting for larger loads.

“We are at the beginning stages of securing a new [digital] permitting vendor,” she said. “Sooner rather than later is our goal. Right now, we are open to ideas and suggestions from the [trucking] industry.”

Contact special correspondent Chris Barnett at chris@cbarnmedia.com.