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Senate backs opening North Idaho routes to heavy trucks

Wed., March 6, 2013, 1:28 p.m.

BOISE – Any route in Idaho – other than interstate freeways – would potentially be fair game for extra-heavy trucks, under legislation that passed the Idaho Senate on Wednesday on a 22-13 vote, despite protests from numerous North Idaho elected officials.

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, read off a long list of local officials and entities opposing the bill, SB 1117, including the Idaho associations of cities, counties and highway districts, and an array of local sheriffs, mayors, county commissioners, fire officials and more. “And these are just the ones that I have heard from,” she said.

Senators disputed whether the locals would have the ultimate say over whether extra-heavy trucks – those up to 129,000 pounds, up from the current limit of 105,500 pounds – could run on their local roads. The bill says local cities, counties or highway districts “may” designate routes for the heavier trucks, but must use criteria set by the Idaho Transportation Department to make their decision. It also says they “shall” issue permits for the extra-heavy trucks on those routes.

“ITD will establish the criteria by which the locals will make the determination,” Keough told the Senate. “I ask you, is that local control?” She questioned whether a city, county or highway district would be vulnerable to a lawsuit if it said “no” to the bigger trucks on a particular route, but ITD said yes.

Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell, told the Senate, “I find it interesting as I watch, when the locals don’t want to do something, they scream that they want us to make the decisions. But when they want to make the decision, they yell local control. This is local control. This bill will not designate one inch of local or county road without that city or county doing the designating.”

The heavier trucks have been allowed for the past decade on 35 selected southern Idaho routes through a pilot project that involved close study and monitoring. Just before its vote on SB 1117, the Senate unanimously passed another bill to make that pilot project permanent, allowing the extra-heavy trucks on those 35 designated routes permanently.

Sen. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, said his local highway district – which maintains the dead-end road that starts at the end of his driveway – opposes SB 1117, as do area fire officials and other local governments. “As I weigh that final vote, tipping the scales to the government side or to the industry side, my scales tip toward industry,” Nonini said. “I think it’s good for industry. For the most part industry wants this. … It’ll help with their efficiencies.”

Sen. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson, the bill’s Senate sponsor, said, “The public policy question is should the Legislature micromanage ITD or should we let the experts, that is the engineers, make the recommendations.”

Sen. Jim Guthrie, R-McCammon, said, “This is a tough vote for me. … Given my background, there’s a lots of reasons to support this bill.” But he noted that the extra-heavy trucks aren’t allowed on the interstate highway system, “the safest, best-built road system in our state.” He said, “Bottom line for me is it takes trucks that would and should be on the interstates,” and directs them onto local routes.

Keough warned that ITD’s standards show routes suitable for the heavy trucks include U.S. Highway 95 from Grangeville to Lewiston, Lewiston to Coeur d’Alene, Coeur d’Alene north through downtown Sandpoint to Bonners Ferry, and Highway 2 from Sandpoint to Priest River and Moyie Springs.

She said those routes aren’t suitable. “There is a difference between north and south on climate and terrain,” she said. “There remain sections of road on those highways where current truck traffic has challenges from time to time.”

Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, said, “I’d like to draw your attention to U.S. Highway 95. Great road, Lewiston to Moscow. Five miles short of Moscow, it changes – dramatically. And the reason it changes is because the plan for how that road was to be built was not followed by the Department of Transportation, and they had to stop that construction. In the last six years, that stretch of highway has been the most lethal stretch of highway in the state of Idaho, and that highway will be open to these trucks. I don’t think this is a proper, balanced approach for this body to take.”

The bill now moves to the House.

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