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Counties slow to approve higher truck weight limits

By John O’Connell

For Idaho Farm Bureau Federation

ARBON VALLEY, Idaho – Local dry-land grain farmer Hans Hayden has hit a stumbling block at the county level in his efforts to capitalize on a recent change in state law, which he hopes will eventually enable him to ship larger truckloads of wheat for milling.

In the late 1990s, the state launched a pilot project to test the safety of increasing truck weight limits from 105,500 pounds to 129,000 pounds. State engineers reasoned the heavier trucks require additional axles, better distributing the weight per axle and improving braking power, ultimately furthering highway safety and reducing wear on infrastructure.

Favorable results from the pilot project led the state to make the 129,000-pound weight limit permanent on pilot routes a few years ago, and to establish a mechanism for increasing weight limits on other state and local routes, at the request of shippers. The federal government had previously lifted a 1991 restriction on allowing trucks above 105,500 pounds on its highways through Idaho.

Hayden acknowledges the state has been swift in approving the routes shippers have requested. But he’s had a harder time getting 129,000-pound weight limits approved on the county roads that access state routes. Hayden has sought permission to ship 129,000-pound loads on local roads in Oneida and Power counties, which would reduce his trips from fields to mills in Utah and Oneida County. County officials, however, have voiced concerns about “unintended consequences,” or suggested additional studies should be conducted.

Hayden, however, believes the math speaks for itself. The weight distribution on a truck equipped to haul 129,000 pounds equals 3,071 pounds per tire and 5,864 pounds per brake, compared with 4,058 pounds per tire and 7,537 pounds per brake with a truck equipped to haul 105,500 pounds.

“It’s better for the roads, but to try to get everybody to understand that at the county level is a nightmare,” Hayden said. “Most counties don’t have a full-time civil engineer. They don’t say no, they just don’t know how to say yes.”

Complicating matters, he explained his farm fields are scattered throughout a broad area, and he ships to many different places, which would require approval of a lengthy list of county roads. Hayden has a truck ready to use once county routes are approved.

“What we really need to do is have the state say everything is 129,000 pounds all the way across the county, and if we don’t want trucks on (a road) we have the legal right to put up a sign and say no trucks,” Hayden said.

Ed Bala, Idaho Transportation Department’s District 5 engineer, said Hayden could realistically need as many as 1,000 local permits to operate 129,000-pound trucks statewide, from fields to elevators. To simplify the process, ITD has offered to complete the permitting process at no cost on behalf of local highway districts willing to use the state’s own review standards.

Bala said 17 highway districts have agreed to the terms. Power County is among them but has been “having some bureaucratic snafus,” Bala said.

“The science (behind 129,000-pound truck weight limits) is irrefutable, but there are a lot of deniers out there,” Bala said.

Oneida County Commissioner Max Firth said he’s met with state engineers about 129,000-pound weight limits, and he acknowledges the science behind allowing heavier trucks is sound. He’s a bit concerned that traffic volumes could increase on county roads with the designation.

Thus far, he said, the county has granted approval on a single road, accessing a mine, and Idaho Transportation Department has drilled holes to evaluate the condition of the road base where another route is being considered.

Firth added that his road managers retain some concerns about heavier weight limits, and he'd like a consensus in support before granting approvals.

“I farm and ranch myself,” Firth said. “A significant move that will help reduce costs for ranchers and farmers is a plus in my book, and I think that’s part of our responsibility as local officials – to help citizens make a living.”

Increased trucking weight limits have been especially important for Amalgamated Sugar Co.

Duane Grant, a Rupert farmer who serves as chairman of the board of the cooperative that owns Amalgamated, said the company has succeeded in obtaining the necessary county routes, which will also be useful when he switches shipments from his own farm to 129,000-pound trucks.

“More shippers are emerging as the number of approved county roads gets larger,” Grant said.

However, Grant acknowledges there are still many areas in which shippers are located off of the main highway, along county roads, and are still “held captive to a smaller, less efficient, less safe, more road-destroying truck configuration.”

“Once highway districts get it figured out that the higher weight limits do result in less wear and tear to their roads, they tend to become proponents of higher weight limits on specified roads,” Grant said.