By Charlie Morasch, staff writer
Few images are as ingrained in American highway lore as the backwater hamlet and its maze of speed traps. Foliage-covered truck route signs can hint at steep fines for violating local rules. Enforcing these regulations, of course, is the cop sporting reflective aviators and a shiny new patrol car purchased on the backs of out-of-town suckers.
Nothing slaps a driver back into reality, however, like paying $700 to drive less than two miles of road.
For OOIDA Member and veteran driver Walter Newburry, the hamlet in question is Elwood, IL, which requires anyone hauling overweight to buy a monthly permit for about $700 – even for a single trip.
“There is only one road that it’s good for, and it’s only 1.7 miles long,” Newburry said. “I have to haul 10 boxes a week just to pay for my permit. And they tell you if you cause any damage to the road, you’re still responsible for the damage – so what does the permit do?”
Elwood’s permit fees are head and shoulders above comparable fees.
Neighboring Joliet, IL, requires no permit fee, Newburry said. The state of Illinois charges $1,000, which covers an entire year of overweight permits.
Don Schaefer, executive vice president at the Mid-West Truckers Association, said Elwood has used truckers as cash cows for years.
“It’s turned into a major, major issue,” Schaefer said. “Thousands of trucks are hauling container traffic in and out of this facility, and the costs incurred by the industry to haul this container traffic is really cutting into profitability. … Right now no one is happy. Truckers aren’t happy, and the intermodal facility isn’t happy because truckers aren’t happy.”
“This town has reaped millions upon millions of dollars,” Schaefer said. “They’ve built this Taj Mahal of a city hall. This is a town of just a couple thousand, and they have a police force which is just massive.”
“Elwood is the worst – right now,” Schaefer said. “You have other towns and jurisdictions that are making plans to do the same thing. They see the cash generated by Elwood and they’re going, ‘why not us?’”
Help may be on the way.
For months, a coalition of shippers, trucking companies and the Mid-West Truckers Association have been working with Illinois legislators on a proposal to create an inland port authority. The port authority would remove power of local towns to charge outrageous permit fees, and instead would rely on a uniform tolling concept.
“The port authority would have police powers and they’d do away with the local permit schedules,” Schaefer said.
The proposal has yet to be formally proposed, but Schaefer said he expects to hear more when Illinois’ legislature reconvenes later this year.
Elwood Mayor William Offerman and Public Works Supervisor Scott Haywood didn’t return emails and phone calls seeking comment.
According to meeting minutes available on Elwood’s website, the village approved a 2009 ordinance that increased permit fees, and gave one village employee power to raise the fees again without approval from any elected officials.
Bryce Baker, president of the Illinois Truck Enforcement Association, said more than 70 cities and counties are members of ITEA, which seeks to bring “uniformity to truck enforcement efforts across Illinois.”
“By holding police officers accountable to high quality enforcement standards, we strive to protect the public, infrastructure, and success of trucking in our state,” Baker said.
He added that Elwood does not belong to ITEA.
“At this time, neither the Elwood Police Department nor any of their officers have joined the ITEA,” Baker said. “We encourage them to join our ranks.”
OOIDA Member Jim Sandt of Lehigh Valley, PA, retired in 2009 after more than four decades on the road hauling fuel tankers for what drivers called the “Buckeye Pipeline.”
“I miss being on the road,” he said.
Macungie sees many tankers being hauled near town. Since at least the early 1990s, Sandt remembers the town banning trucks on State Route 100 along the 1.75-mile stretch of the highway in Macungie.
The local ordinance bans trucks more than 8 feet wide and 65 feet long – pretty much all commercial trucks nowadays.
Sandt said he frequently drove through Macungie when 96-inch trailers were widely used, and remembers knowing of the borough’s reputation then.
Now that 102-inch trailers are the norm, Sandt said, he’s seen Macungie cops pull over several trucks in a row whose drivers missed the signs.
He’s not the only one.
In the past five years, Macungie has received $630,000 in fines from 4,000 truck drivers who violated the truck ban.
“I think that’s a big moneymaker they have going on out there,” Sandt said.
The Morning Call reported that Macungie’s revenue from the truck fines doubled after Edward Harry became police chief in 2006. Harry said most of the town’s fine revenue comes from trucks violating the truck detour route.
“It’s not a moneymaking thing,” Chief Harry told Land Line Magazine. “First of all, my borough did not put up those signs. That is a PennDOT restriction. We simply enforce it because it comes through the borough.”
Because of complaints regarding a lack of warning signs, Pennsylvania has said it will add signs farther out from Macungie to warn truckers.
Harry said his department hands out between 650 and 1,000 citations annually for trucks violating the detour route. He doesn’t dispute fine revenue jumping, but says money isn’t driving his enforcement.
“I’m responding to complaints from citizens that it wasn’t being enforced,” Harry said. “And quite frankly, enforcement hasn’t stopped the number of violations from going up.”
Harry said he’s pulled over the same driver multiple times, including one driver who was caught twice in a two-hour span. Other drivers, he said, have shown him Qualcomm messages with instructions from dispatchers to ignore the truck ban.
“What can you say?” he asked. LL