Effort to get tough with too-tall trucks OK'd in Virginia

| 9/29/2006

Virginia lawmakers headed home two days early Thursday, Sept. 28, after accomplishing next to nothing during their special session on transportation funding. Legislators did manage to pass one bill of significance to the trucking industry during their two days of work.

The breakdown in talks for how to come up with about $1 billion a year in additional revenue for roads, bridges and tunnels fell along the same lines as what led to this year’s budget impasse that dragged out the regular session.

Problems stem from Republican leaders in the House and Senate who haven’t been able to reach agreement on funding. Senate leaders say new revenues, including a fuel tax increase, are needed to address congestion and maintenance costs, while House leaders are vehemently opposed to higher taxes and fees.

The final straw came when a Senate panel Wednesday, Sept. 29, rejected the bulk of a $2.4 billion House transportation plan that relied heavily on debt and existing revenues that otherwise would be earmarked for schools, health care and other services, The Associated Press reported.

Despite all the turmoil, legislators did manage to approve a bill that will force truck drivers caught with over-height vehicles at the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel to dig a lot deeper into their pockets. Senators voted unanimously to approve the bill one day after the House of Delegates voted 89-6 to approve it.

“My goal isn’t to penalize all the truckers. We’ve got to find a way to penalize the bad apples,” Delegate Glenn Oder, R-Newport News, told “Land Line Now” on XM Satellite Radio earlier in the week about his bill.

Heftier fines and warning letters to trucking companies last year helped briefly curtail incidents of too-tall trucks attempting passage in the westbound tube along Interstate 64 near Norfolk, VA. The fines were $85 but increased to $500 last year.

In recent months, however, wayward trucks have been making their way back on to the route, The Virginian-Pilot reported. The result has been more congestion.

To address the issue, Oder called for getting tougher with problem trucks.

In addition to the $500 fines, Virginia law authorized judges to add three demerit points to a commercial driver’s license. It takes 18 demerits in one year to trigger a license suspension.

Oder initially sought a fine of $1,000 and $2,500 for a fourth violation. The House Courts of Justice Committee agreed to the $1,000 fine on the first offense, but wanted the $2,500 fine to kick in on a second offense. Violations will be considered a moving violation to ensure it is included on the trucker’s driving record.

Oder said while he believes the fines that took effect in July 2005 work as a deterrent they just haven’t been high enough to solve the problem.

“When the fines initially got enacted and they first started ending up in the courtroom there was almost a 70 percent drop in the number of violators. But through the course of the spring and into early summer it eventually creped back up to exactly where it was before we initiated the fines,” Oder said.

Signs have been posted on nearby Interstates 564 and 64, which merge to form I-64, to inform truckers about the height restriction. In addition, fliers have been posted at truck stops alerting truckers to the restrictions and the penalties for violations.

If truckers fail to heed the warnings, a series of four over-height sensors – one about one and three-quarters miles away from the tunnel entrance, one at an inspection station three-quarters of a mile away, another at about a quarter of a mile away, and a fourth close to the tunnel’s mouth – alert a truck over 12 feet 6 inches tall if it attempts to pass.

Oder said that from May to mid-August, the Virginia Department of Transportation stopped 1,400 trucks that sensors determined to be close to or over the height restrictions. VDOT must stop traffic around the bridge-tunnel an average of more than four times each business day because truckers have ignored the warnings signals and approached the tunnel, he said.

The bill – HB5061 – now heads to Gov. Tim Kaine for his signature. If he signs, the new fines will be enforced beginning in July 2007.

Efforts to come up with funding for transportation projects will have to wait until next year during the regular session that begins in January.

– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor