May 6, 2011 in Idaho

Megaloads hearing to enter third week

By The Spokesman-Review
 

BOISE - A contested-case hearing over plans for hundreds of giant megaloads of oil equipment to travel through a scenic Idaho river canyon will stretch into its third week next week, after a full day of testimony on Friday.

Among the issues that have surfaced over the past week is a dispute over just how Idaho is defining its 15-minute limit on traffic delays from the wide loads that would take up both lanes of narrow, twisting U.S. Highway 12.

“You could follow a megaload at 5 mph for three hours and never have been delayed, according to this permit,” author Linwood Laughy, one of the leading opponents of the loads and a resident along the route, told a state hearing officer this week.

Laughy said he’s also been stopped for repeated 10-minute delays just a few minutes apart near megaload transports, and told that doesn’t count as exceeding the 15-minute limit.

The Idaho Transportation Department has defined “traffic delay,” which is limited to a maximum of 15 minutes, as only occurring when motorists are stopped, continuously, by flaggers because of the megaloads, rather than also counting time they’re traveling slowly behind the loads.

Adam Rush, ITD spokesman, said, “In order to have a practical field measurement, the transportation department uses the time that a flagger actually stops a motorist. That can be measured, and is a practical way to measure how long a motorist is stopped.”

He cited the state’s Standard Specifications for Highway Construction, which state, “In no case shall any individual traffic delay exceed 15 minutes,” as backup for that position, though those specifications offer no definition for “traffic delay.”

Opponents of the loads called their own expert to testify, traffic engineer Pat Dobie of Boise, who cited the federal Highway Capacity Manual definition of delay. “It’s the delay associated with reduced travel speed, plus the delay associated with stopping,” Dobie told the hearing officer, retired Idaho District Judge Duff McKee.

McKee responded, “The general public would consider itself delayed if it gets stuck behind the load. But I don’t know whether that goes to the permitting analysis.” McKee said the different definition of delay, which he called a “stop-dead delay,” might be appropriate because the megaloads would travel only at night, between 10 p.m. and 5:30 a.m. “This doesn’t delay everybody, it delays those people who are on the road at a given hour at a given location,” he said.

Dobie responded that state law requires “public convenience” to be a primary consideration in granting permits for oversize loads. “It doesn’t say convenience to everybody but night owls,” he said.

James L. Pline, a former international president of the Institute of Transportation Engineers who worked as a traffic engineer for ITD for 35 years and then became a consultant, told The Spokesman-Review that the accepted definition of traffic delay is “the additional travel time experienced by a driver, passenger or pedestrian.”

Pline said that’s the definition he used in his 35 years with ITD. “And it’s the official definition out of the highway capacity manual, so it’s the one that’s used all over the country.”

Pline, who once lived in Kamiah, said he sees no problem with the megaloads, “as long as they take care of the roadway and don’t hold up traffic.”

Laird Lucas of Advocates for the West, attorney for the residents and business owners who are objecting to the megaloads, said, “We have not seen anywhere … that defines delay as an absolute stop. It seems to be just what was developed for these plans.”

Rush said ITD’s District 2 maintenance engineer, Doral Hoff, explained that “it’s once a motorist is stopped by a flagger, that is when the clock starts” on the 15-minute delay limit.

Pius Rolheiser, spokesman for Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil, said regardless of ITD’s definition, “Our transportation plan calls for us to clear traffic every 15 minutes.” That includes vehicles following the loads, he said, as well as oncoming traffic that’s being held to allow the load to pass.

The hearing is scheduled to resume on Wednesday morning.


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