States Debate Truck Limits

States Debate Truck Limits

When heavy snows and frigid weather hit much of the nation in the first two weeks of the year, several states lifted weight restrictions on trucks, some to help endangered crops to get to market and others to speed needed heating oil and gasoline to ice-locked communities. The only problem trucking companies and shippers had with that is the relaxed limits will melt away with the first thaw.

The emergency actions to lift the weight limits were a reminder that the longtime battle in Washington over bigger trucks is spreading to states as Washington is locked down over matters such as health care legislation, and communities take on an issue that pits service to local business against what critics say is the safety of local roads.

Maine and Vermont are pressing ahead with a controversial test of heavier trucks on interstate highways, while the New York Department of Transportation is considering plans to keep heavy trucks that meet current size limits off some state roads.

Trucking industry and safety and community advocates are active in both arenas, coming to grips over the safety, productivity and environmental impact of bigger trucks.

Truckers and farmers staged a protest in Albany on Jan. 6, driving big rigs to the state capitol to oppose Gov. David Paterson’s plan to keep heavy trucks off several state roads in the Finger Lakes region of western New York. The state DOT is reviewing a revised version of Paterson’s plan, introduced in May 2008.

The proposal was intended to keep garbage trucks hauling trash to regional landfills from leaving interstates and using state routes through small towns such as Skaneateles, N.Y., as short cuts. But it also covers commercial trucks hauling freight on those roads.

The plan would ban through trucks on seven “reasonable access” state routes. Trucks making local pickups and deliveries would be allowed to use the roads.

The stated goal is to keep those through vehicles on the “national network” — mainly the interstates — as much as possible, eliminating shortcuts of 25 miles or less for through trucks. About 71,000 trucks would be affected, according to the state DOT.

“The governor’s efforts would keep these large trucks on the interstates and off local roads on which New Yorkers live and work and their children play,” Paterson’s office said in a statement last year. A comment period on the proposal was extended until Dec. 14, and the state DOT reportedly is reviewing more than 1,000 submissions.

The trucking industry and business community in the state and at large oppose the plan, saying it will add costs, hurt local industries and lead to greater restrictions.

Maine and Vermont also want to get heavier trucks off state roads and onto interstate highways. At the same time, they sought and won exemptions or partial exemptions from the federal weight limit of 80,000 pounds gross vehicle for Class 8 tractor-trailer combinations. The New England states received permission from Congress in the transportation appropriations bill to test the use of 108,000- to 120,000-pound trucks in Vermont and 100,000-pound trucks in Maine.

Their one-year pilot project, backed by claims that running heavier, bigger trucks on interstates would be safer than running trucks over state roads such as Maine’s Route 9, was attacked by groups representing truck crash victims and survivors. The program “unnecessarily jeopardizes motorists both by making them drive on the roads with heavier trucks and also by threatening more widespread, rapid destruction of our roads and bridges,” said Daphne Izer, co-founder of Parents Against Tired Truckers.

Maine Gov. John E. Baldacci quickly implemented the program on Dec. 17, signing an “emergency proclamation” raising the limits of truck weights on Maine’s interstates.

“Moving heavy truck traffic off Maine’s secondary roads and onto the interstate that was built to handle them is a matter of public safety,” Baldacci said. “Every day we keep these trucks on small, secondary roads we increase the risk to the public.”

Contact William B. Cassidy at wcassidy@joc.com.