SPECIAL REPORT: Idaho legislators pushing for heavier trucks; OOIDA, others fighting effort

| 4/4/2003

A group of legislators in Idaho are pushing hard to get heavier trucks onto the state's roads. But so far, their attempts have been stymied in the face of considerable opposition from a number of groups, including OOIDA.

The effort for heavier trucks, which sources say is being spearheaded by House Speaker Bruce Newcomb, has included two bills launched from the House and a resolution asking for action from Congress.

The overall plan would allow multiple trailer trucks with overweight permits to weigh up to 129,000 pounds, rather than the current restriction of 105,500 pounds. Two of the bills would have allowed heavier trucks only on specified highways in the state, all in the southern half, under the proposal.

Each of the actions has spurred spirited testimony by Bill Rode, OOIDA board member and Idaho resident. Rode said roughly 15 groups sent representatives to testify before the Senate Transportation Committee on one of the measures, HJM005.

According to the Idaho Statesman, the plans' opponents include AAA, small trucking companies, trucking insurance companies, a logging contractors' association, railroads and unions.

Heavier trucks would damage bridges, create safety hazards on the state's hilly, curved two-lane roads and eliminate jobs vital to the state's teetering economy, Rode testified, speaking for OOIDA.

Damage to the state's roads was a particular concern, according to opponents and legislative officials.

"In the past, everyone has blamed the pot holes and breaks in the road on the trucks that weigh 80,000 pounds," Rode testified. "What will 129,000 pounds do to the roads?"

However, according to the Statesman, the bill's supporters say the heavier truck measure would reduce the number of trucks on the roads, and since the weight would be distributed over more axles, there would be little effect on roads. Newcomb extended the time involved in the plan so Idaho's Department of Transportation could research how much impact the heavier trucks would have on roads.

Economics also plays a part in the supporters' strategy, with some saying the bill would make the state more competitive with surrounding states.

Rep. JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, who introduced one of the bills, said the measure was requested by "commodity interests" in the state. Those were identified by the Statesman as sugar beet, potato, wheat and grain, milk and phosphate industries, all of whom, the paper said, have had a say in what routes will be included in the plan.

Rode identified some of the companies directly involved in pushing the effort: Amalgamated Sugar; Idaho Milk Producers, a dairy cooperative; Idaho Hay Growers Association; Idaho Grain Growers Association; Boise Cascade, a lumber company; as well as others in several fields.

Amalgamated Sugar, Rode said, has especially pushed hard for the 129,000-pound limit, bringing it up to the Legislature on several previous occasions. According to Rode, their attorney told the committee the company would save 2,647 loads, cutting $125,000 per growing season, at one plant and save 1,250 loads, cutting $90,000 at a second plant.

However, those savings would apparently not pass to the truckers - at least not right away. House Speaker Newcomb testified the "pilot project" was set to run 10 years so truckers could recoup the cost of new equipment to haul the heavier loads.

"HB282 (one of the bills) will only help a few large companies to get more freight hauled for less money, as they will need less trucks and drivers," Rode told the House Transportation Committee during a hearing on the bill March 6. "HB282 will hurt the small business trucker here in Idaho."

But safety rated high on Rode's list of objections as well.

Rode pointed to the potential problems the larger trucks could cause on the state's highways, including figures from studies by the University of Idaho and the U.S. Department of Transportation. The university concluded the heavier rigs would lead to $290 million in bridge repairs, while a DOT study concluded the larger vehicles were involved in 11 percent more fatal accidents than single rigs.

"The association (OOIDA) strongly opposes any change in the size and weight of commercial trucks as the larger and heavier vehicles are more challenging to operate and the extra risks seem to compromise safety," Rode wrote in his prepared remarks.

The effort to bring heavier trucks to the state started in February. That's when Rep. Wood introduced HB282, which would have allowed multiple trailer trucks with overweight permits to weigh up to 129,000 pounds.

That bill, which passed the House March 13, stalled in the Senate.

A second measure, HJM005, would have asked Congress "to eliminate the preemption under the 1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA), which prevents Idaho from determining truck weights on interstate highways within its jurisdiction" - effectively allowing the state to give heavier trucks access to the roads.

That measure also passed the House, on a voice vote, March 13. However, according to a spokeswoman at the Legislature, that bill is being held in committee and will not come out to be voted on - essentially killing the measure.

A third effort to increase weights was introduced March 31, and has already passed the House, by a vote of 49 to 15 on April 4.

HB395 is similar to the original bill, HB282, allowing multiple trailer trucks with overweight permits could weigh up to 129,000 pounds, rather than the current restriction of 105,500 pounds. But the new bill adjusts which routes would be covered.

HB395 is the only one of the bills that is still active; it is now headed to the Senate.

Rep. JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, who introduced HB282, said the new bill was produced after a conference with members of the state Senate and officials in the commodities industries who were interested in the plan.

The new bill contained a number of provisions that were different from the original, she said, such as the new routes. In addition, it requires the overweight trucks to use their extra axle, Wood said, "for the ability to meet their standard state permit."

The routes in the plan are being tailored to the needs of the commodity groups who requested the program, she said.

--by Mark H. Reddig, associate editor