BOISE – Controversial legislation to let extra-heavy, extra-long trucks on Idaho roads is now law, but it’s unlikely new routes will be designated for the heavier trucks in North Idaho before next spring.
Idaho’s state transportation board is starting a lengthy process to figure out how to handle requests for trucks exceeding the state’s current 105,500-pound weight limit, including requests for segments of busy, winding U.S. Highway 95 in North Idaho. The new rules would be presented to lawmakers for approval in their 2014 legislative session.
“I think the primary thing is the way the roads are built in North Idaho: Can they handle the weight?” asked Jim Coleman, the Panhandle member of the state transportation board. “I think you have to evaluate them on a case-by-case basis.”
The ITD’s approach is drawing plaudits from the law’s opponents, who include North Idaho lawmakers, local government officials, highway districts, and even loggers and truckers.
Mill owners and agricultural producers, led by Coeur d’Alene-based Idaho Forest Group, proposed and backed the new law, saying hauling bigger loads will boost their efficiency and bottom lines and mean fewer trucks on the roads.
“It really is an issue that the general public has concerns about and wants to weigh in, as do local officials at the city and county level,” said Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint.
Much concern in the north focuses on Highway 95, in part because the Transportation Department’s regulations already say the route is appropriate for extra-long trucks. Highways 41, 53 and 2 have the same designation. That makes them potential candidates for the extra-heavy trucks, which typically also are extra-long.
Until the new law passed, Idaho allowed 129,000-pound trucks only on 35 Southern Idaho routes, where the state conducted a 10-year pilot project. It concluded that the heavier trucks didn’t do significantly more damage to the roads or bridges there.
But critics say the study was inconclusive and failed to answer questions about North Idaho, where the climate, mountainous terrain, traffic conditions and commodities hauled are far different.
“We don’t have the kind of roads up here that they have in the south,” said Rep. Cindy Agidius, R-Moscow.
Plus, Highway 95 runs through the center of many North Idaho towns, including Moscow. “The University of Idaho is only two blocks off of Main Street,” Agidius said, and students cross the highway every day. “You can’t fight with those big trucks on a bicycle,” she said.
Potlatch Corp. told the Legislature this year that it wants the higher weight limit to allow the company to haul bigger loads of wood chips along the Highway 95 corridor. Current wood-chip trucks in North Idaho typically have a single trailer; to get up to 129,000 pounds, they’d have to have two trailers. Other types of trucks common on North Idaho roads, including logging trucks, already often have two trailers.
Some 129,000-pound configurations require triple trailers, but Jerry Whitehead, chairman of the Idaho Transportation Board, said that’s “very unlikely” in North Idaho, given the products that are hauled there. Idaho’s new law doesn’t apply only to state routes – it also allows permits for 129,000-pound trucks on local roads. But amendments to the bill gave local road jurisdictions – highway districts, cities or counties – discretion over whether to issue permits.
Idaho’s neighbors are split on weight limits for their local and state roads. Montana, Wyoming, Utah and Nevada allow up to 129,000 pounds. Washington, Oregon and California don’t.
Coleman, with the Idaho Transportation Board, said what matters most is the specific conditions regarding any stretch of road that’s proposed for the heavier trucks. For example, he said he views Highway 95 from Lewiston to Moscow as “a bad stretch of road right now,” and said improvements should be completed before weights are raised.
Idaho Gov. Butch Otter has made it clear he won’t approve new heavy-truck rules unless they take into account local conditions and include public hearings.