If drivers on Interstate 90 sometimes feel like the meat in a semi-truck sandwich, it’s no wonder.
More trucks than ever are hauling loads on the Inland Northwest’s main drag.
Idaho records show about a thousand more trucks a week rolled through the Huetter weigh station and rest stop in 1994 than in 1993.
Just across the border at Eastern Washington’s port of entry, officer Fred Batten said his numbers also show about a thousand more trucks a week rumbling by.
The behemoth rigs can be a nuisance for everyday drivers, but high-volume truck traffic reflects the region’s economic strength.
For port inspectors, the hundreds of trucks they see daily at their scales mean plenty of work, said Jim Sorenson, supervisor at the Huetter port.
Sorenson’s staff weighs, inspects and issues permits to the big rigs. But it’s the trucks inspectors don’t see that are the problem, he said.
Many trucks bypass the scales to skirt citations for weighing too much. Overloaded trucks punish both Kootenai County’s battered roads and Spokane County’s byways. The effect is like dozens of cars pounding the pavement at one time, Sorenson said.
Enter inspector Dale Childers and his mobile crew.
Childers, with one of two units for the North Idaho port district, takes the portable scales and sets up shop on truckers’ favorite bypass routes.
“I’d say the amount of truck traffic we’ve seen is up 500 percent from a few years ago,” Childers said. “We sort of play a cat-and-mouse game with the overweight trucks.”
Truck drivers spread the word about the mobile port of entry units via CB chatter, making it tough get a jump on the illegal traffic, he said.
A small number of trucking companies, both in- and out-of-state, are the habitual scale dodgers, the port inspectors say.
In Washington, overweight trucks avoiding the port damaged the Harvard Road bridge in the Spokane Valley so heavily that it’s now offlimits to trucks.
A crew of nine commercial vehicle enforcement officers based in Spokane patrol seven Eastern Washington counties, said Ernie Brown, an officer with the group.
Most truckers obey the rules, said Huetter staffer Ryan Johnson. “Some of them make some mistakes, and we just try to help fix them.”
One trucker said he looks forward to driving into Idaho because of the port staff’s professionalism.
“These people here just go right about their business - they have a job and they just do it,” said Jerry Smith, who hauls dry cleaning supplies from Tukwila, Wash., all over Idaho. “This is probably the best port I deal with.”
When a truck rumbles down the off-ramp, Johnson said he and the staff size up its load to see if they’ll let it roll over the scales or if they’ll make it stop and weigh each axle separately. The scales are accurate to 20 pounds.
Truck weights are tricky, but generally the machines get 20,000 pounds per axle, less if the truck is shorter.
Earlier this week, a mammoth rig with a gigantic Komatsu tractor/ excavator squatting on the flatbed rolled up, and Johnson weighed each set of axles. The truck and tractor rang up about 56,000 pounds total on the scales - a legal load.
“We see a lot of heavy equipment and construction trucks through here,” Johnson said.
“I also get to see some amazing trucks, with hand-painted lightning on the sides and a lot of detail,” he said, standing below a shelf with about a dozen neatly decaled toy trucks, gifts from regulars at the port. “That’s a part I like here.”
Inspectors take a peek at the trucks’ suspensions, brakes and tires as they roll over the scales. Often state officials will conduct spot safety checks at the port of entry.
Sorenson’s staff gets to inspect all sorts of interesting loads inside the trucks. Apples, potatoes, big tanks of gasoline and, once, a good-sized airplane. Then there are less glamorous inspection assignments, like the trucks hauling bee hives.
“We once had the bees swarm all over one of our signs here,” Sorenson said. “You couldn’t even read it.”
Then there was the trucker who mistook the Huetter port for another type of drive-through.
“Once we had a guy drive up here late at night and order a hamburger and fries,” Childers said. “He was obviously drunk. But you just never know what a guy will do.”