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Idaho looks at allowing extra-heavy trucks up north

BOISE – Despite opposition from numerous North Idaho legislators, a state Senate committee on Thursday narrowly approved legislation to allow extra-heavy trucks – up to 129,000 pounds – on roads statewide.

Under the bill, proposed by the Idaho Forest Group in Coeur d’Alene, extra-heavy trucks would be allowed anywhere the local highway jurisdiction, whether it’s the city, county or highway district, says the roads can handle them. The current limit on truck weights in Idaho is 105,500 pounds, except on 35 designed southern Idaho routes where a 10-year pilot project has allowed the heavier semi-trucks, which typically have triple trailers.

“I’m disappointed,” said Sen. state Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, who fought hard against the proposal, but was outvoted in the Senate Transportation Committee by one vote. State Sen. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, led the move to approve the bill, backed by Sen. Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston.

“I think we’ll learn from it,” Nonini declared. “I don’t think we have time to wait and lay out a pilot project, in the light of the closing of mills and what few mills are left up there.”

Benewah County Commissioner Phil Lampert spoke out against the bill, telling the senators, “The terrain is quite a bit different up there… We feel it’s a real safety issue.”

Describing parts of U.S. Highway 95, he said, “Going downhill, you’d better hope their brakes work.”

Stuart Davis, executive director of the Idaho Association of Highway Districts, said, “There is not enough data to support extending those routes up north. There is not a pilot project.”

Keough said after the vote, “It’s one of those times when history on this issue would be helpful, in my view.”

Backers of extra-heavy trucks have spent more than a decade building support for their use on the designated routes in southern Idaho, she noted, addressing local concerns and working with industry and the state to iron out the details – all while promising never to seek heavy-truck routes in North Idaho, with its mountainous, twisting roads and much wetter climate.

Prior to the committee’s 5-4 vote to approve SB 1117, it voted unanimously to pass another bill to make the southern Idaho pilot project permanent – just for those 35 designated routes.

Both that bill, SB 1064, and SB 1117 now move to the full Senate for debate.

The committee hearing stretched for nearly three hours, and included testimony from a large crowd of lobbyists, local officials and representatives of various industries.

Matt Van Vleet, vice president for communication and public affairs for Clearwater Paper Corp. in Lewiston, said his company employs 1,270 people and “transportation costs are extremely important to us.” He said, “Idaho is not the lowest-cost place to run a pulp and paper business,” and said cutting trucking costs by running bigger loads could mean significant savings for the firm.

Jim Riley, representing Idaho Forest Group, told the committee, “Properly configured higher capacity trucks can be operated on roads … without compromising public safety.” He said the result would be “more efficient trucking.”

Opponents either testifying against the bill or submitting letters against it ranged from mayors and sheriffs to AAA of Idaho.

Dover Mayor Randy Curless said extra-heavy trucks will damage local roads that his small city won’t be able to afford to fix. “I think all the roads are short on adequate funding,” he told the senators. “Locally, I don’t think we can come up with the money.”

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