After spending millions of dollars annually for three decades to repair damage to U.S. 23 by overweight coal trucks, the state has taken the first step to establish what effectively is the first weigh station on the nation’s busiest coal-haul highway.
Kentucky Vehicle Enforcement (KVE) will open a commercial vehicle inspection station here near the Floyd-Johnson county line in mid-January, said Commissioner Greg Howard.
Howard said Gov. Ernie Fletcher has approved the project, which initially will be open on a random basis using semi-portable scales.
“I don’t know about a full facility,” Howard said. “They’re pretty costly, I think; however, this should do the work for now … We don’t need a big, fancy facility like they have on the interstates.”
Still, the modest Floyd County outpost — based in a used mobile home — would stand as a kind of monument to the state’s resolve under the Fletcher administration to enforce hauling limits on coal trucks.
During former Gov. Paul Patton’s administration, one KVE officer predicted it would never happen.
“You’ll never see a scale on U.S. 23 in eastern Kentucky anywhere,” said KVE Maj. Steve Maffett in 2001. “They’re not going to let that happen up there.”
Although Kentucky’s 1986 extended-weight law allows coal trucks to haul 46,000 lb. more than the federal weight limit of 80,000 lb., officials acknowledge that trucks traveling U.S. 23 between the Virginia line and barge-loading facilities at Catlettsburg frequently hauled more than 200,000 lbs. of coal.
Lack of enforcement took its toll in deaths, injuries and road maintenance, critics said.
At least 53 people died and 536 were injured in accidents with trucks licensed to haul coal from 2000 through Aug. 2004, according to a Herald-Leader analysis.
Meanwhile, the state spent more than $110 million to resurface U.S. 23 between 1996 and 2003.
When Fletcher became governor in 2004, he transferred KVE from the Transportation Cabinet to the Justice Cabinet.
With Fletcher’s approval, Secretary Steve Pence and Howard, a former Lexington police officer, began weighing coal trucks in April 2004 with portable scales that former officers claimed they could not afford.
More than 77 percent of the trucks weighed that month were issued overweight citations.
A year later, only 44 of 1,167 trucks were overweight on the same roads. At the same time, deaths and injuries involving coal trucks on U.S. 23 have declined, studies show.
Last week, KVE weighed 240 trucks near the proposed station and cited only three, Howard said.
News of the proposed facility received qualified support this week from area officials and coal spokesmen.
David Gooch, executive director of Coal Operators and Associates in Pikeville, did not object to the inspection station, but called for equal enforcement.
“As long as they stop the logging trucks, the Wal-Mart trucks and the overloaded school buses, that’s fine with me,” Gooch said.
Some officials pointed out that a detour from U.S. 23 onto KY 3, approximately a mile south of the proposed inspection station, will allow overweight trucks to bypass KVE’s new facility and rejoin U.S. 23 in Lawrence County.
“I wish they had put it in Boyd County,” said Johnson County Sheriff Bill Witten.
KVE officers initially will monitor the bypass route, Howard said.
Meanwhile, he said, truck drivers, coal operators and enforcement officers are now on the same page, “maybe for the first time.”