Concerned about longer, heavier trucks, commissioner asks congressional delegation to study issue

 The Independent Record

By AL KNAUBER Independent Record

August 6, 2013

Lewis and Clark County commissioner is asking Montana’s congressional delegation to wait for a federal study before voting on allowing longer trucks with heavier loads.

The request to Commissioner Susan Good Geise came from Whitney Kontaxakis, with the Coalition Against Bigger Trucks LLC, based in Alexandria, Va., who prepared the letter for the county’s approval.

“I think we need to get the results of the study and Congress can make a more informed decision,” Geise said of why she agreed to participate.

As to whether size and weight limits should remain as they are or be increased, Geise said she doesn’t have an opinion on it yet.

Consumers pay for the cost to transport freight through retail pricing, she said. Taxpayers share in the costs too through the expense for road maintenance.

The letter did not advocate for or oppose changes in size and weight limits for trucks, Geise said, adding, “I was very comfortable with that.” “I really worry as a driver … about really long vehicles,” she said.

Drivers on two-lane roads, such as she drives during her commutes between her home in Augusta and Helena, where she works as a county commissioner, may not realize the length of a truck when attempting to pass it, she said.

Longer trucks can pose safety concerns for those drivers who are attempting to pass them, Geise added.

The effects of traffic on roads, she said, are a concern of people, and she can receive a half dozen calls a week from people who are concerned about their roads.

Road deterioration, whether caused by vehicle loads or speeds, is expensive, time consuming and never ending, the commissioner noted.

The request for a letter from the Lewis and Clark County commissioners is part of a national effort to get lawmakers on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure to await the results of a federal study required in the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, MAP-21, said Curtis Sloan, a vice president with the Coalition Against Bigger Trucks.

According to the 990 tax form filed by the coalition in 2011, the coalition’s mission is to promote truck safety. It says its tax exempt purpose achievements for each of its three largest program services is “to reduce injuries and deaths caused by truck crashes in the United States and to oppose any increase in allowable weight and size limits.”

A previous bill, House Resolution 763, introduced in the House in February 2012, would have given states more discretion in truck sizes and weights.

The Library of Congress website says H.R. 763, introduced in February 2011 during the 112th Congress, would have allowed states to authorize a vehicle with a maximum gross weight exceeding certain federal weight limitations to operate on the Interstate Highway System routes in the state under specified conditions that involve a combination of axles and weights.

No major actions were taken on that legislation.The coalition is asking Montana county officials to support the letters because Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., is a member of the House committee, Sloan said. “We’re out working in congressional districts on this vote that matter,” he explained.

Committee assignments determine what states the coalition will work, he said, adding that there are 21 new members to the committee.

Sloan characterizes the organization as a grassroots effort for highway safety that brings together groups that might not otherwise come together.

However, the majority of its $1.7 million received through grants and contributions, according to its 2011 tax form filed with the Internal Revenue Service — the most recent one available on the website GuideStar — came from the railroad industry, Sloan said. “The bulk of our funding comes from people with connections to the rail industry,” he explained. He did not have available a percentage of the funds that come from the railroad industry.

Geise said she asked Kontaxakis who funded the coalition before agreeing to sign the letters and was told it was the railroads.

While the railroads have an economic stake in the volume of freight that is carried by trucks, Sloan said, so do other groups. The coalition’s website notes that opponents of longer and heavier trucks include law enforcement, independent truck drivers and the Teamsters Union.

Geise and county officials had an opportunity to edit the letter prepared by Kontaxakis that was sent to Montana’s congressional delegation.

A single version of the letter was used for all three members of the delegation: Daines and Sens. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Jon Tester, D-Mont.

According to the letter that Geise sent to Tester, it says: “I would like to thank Congress for voting in favor of MAP-21 allowing Congress to move forward with a comprehensive transportation bill including a two-year comprehensive USDOT study examining the impacts of heavier vehicles.

“As a Lewis and Clark County Commissioner, a large concern is navigating these trucks on Montana’s unique terrain and in varying weather. Heavier and longer vehicles would cause serious safety threats to Montana’s motorists.

“I ask that you oppose any attempts to increase truck size and weight similar to S 763 in the previous Congress, in advance of the study being completed. This is a serious safety issue for our state and our constituents and I ask that you wait to take a position until the USDOT can return their observations.”

According to the Department of Transportation’s website, provisions in MAP-21 require the federal Department of Transportation to conduct a comprehensive truck size and weight limit study addressing differences in safety risks, infrastructure impacts and the effect on levels of enforcement between trucks operating at or within federal truck size and weight limits and trucks legally operating in excess of federal limits.

Also to be examined are potential safety and infrastructure impacts of alternative configurations to the current truck size and weight regulations as well as estimating the effects of freight diversion due to these alternative configurations, the DOT website notes.

The reference to S. 763 in the letter is an editing error, Sloan said, adding that it should have referenced H.R. 763.

A report on the DOT study is to be ready for Congress by November 2014.

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