Overweight Trucks Tearing Up State’s Roadways

Mon June 06, 2005 - Southeast Edition

RALEIGH, NC (AP) More than two years ago, state legislators put the Highway Patrol in charge of policing overweight trucks. The result has been more overweight trucks tearing up the state’s highways, according to a newspaper report.

The decision to take the responsibility from the Division of Motor Vehicles as well as laws passed by legislators to allow heavier trucks has meant millions of tax dollars each year going to expensive road repairs, The News & Observer of Raleigh reported.

Experts can’t say exactly how much legal or overweight trucks cost the state in highway damage, though estimates run as high as $100 million a year. The state will spend $2.2 billion this year on highways, including $615 million on maintenance. The top highway official said he needs $1 billion for maintenance.

While repair costs rise, officers caught less than half as many overweight trucks last year as they ticketed in 2000. In addition, about 100 fewer officers watched the back roads to weigh trucks with portable scales or work at weigh stations on interstates, the newspaper reported.

A state Department of Transportation study estimates that only 45 percent of the trucks on interstates are weighed during the week. The stations are usually closed on weekends.

Keeping overweight trucks off the road is important because the damage they cause increases exponentially as the weight increases. Experts said a 10-percent increase in weight can translate into a 33-percent increase in damage.

Even if a truck is legally loaded with a gross weight of 80,000 pounds, pavement design experts said it can do at least as much damage to a highway as 5,000 cars.

The trucking industry said it is responsible for 300,000 jobs in North Carolina, and costs for companies and consumers drop with bigger and heavier loads. Driving overweight is so profitable that in the early hours of the morning — when weigh stations are closed and enforcement officers are off duty — the percentage of overweight trucks triples, according to a newspaper analysis of DOT data. The information was gathered with hidden sensors.

Charles F. Diehl, the president of the North Carolina Trucking Association, said the group has not pushed for weight exemptions.

“By and large, our members would prefer that weight allowances not be increased,” Diehl said. “It hurts their bottom line, because they’re expected to haul more.”

But some truckers want that. Fred Allen, executive director of the North Carolina Aggregates Association, said members who own quarries don’t benefit from overloaded trucks. Instead, it’s truckers who are paid by the weight of their load.

“We find ourselves often, I don’t want to say at odds with the truckers, but trying to keep them legal,” Allen said.

Gov. Mike Easley’s administration wanted to give weight enforcement duties to the patrol after the DMV was entangled in allegations of ticket fixing and other improprieties. But the Highway Patrol acknowledges it hasn’t gotten the job done since taking over in December 2002, with Maj. M.R. Johnson writing in a memo last year that “portable weight enforcement activities” and inspections are at “an all time low.”

The patrol commander, Col. W. Fletcher Clay, blames a shortage of officers.

Forty percent of the 263 uniformed weight enforcement positions transferred to the patrol became vacant as officers left and no one took their places. And with the patrol requiring applicants for weight-officer positions to be trained as troopers, graduates of patrol school often choose to be higher-paid troopers.

That’s part of the reason why the state’s eight interstate weigh stations have seen a 22 percent drop in their operating hours since the Highway Patrol took over. Some weigh stations are so understaffed that there is no one to chase trucks that ignore the stations.

At other times, trucks take alternate routes to avoid the stations, according to PBS&J, a consultant hired by the DOT to recommend ways to modernize weigh stations.

“Only a fool is going to come to an open weigh station knowing he’s overweight,” said officer C.D. Miller, who sometimes works at a weigh station west of Charlotte. “If a truck knows he’s going to be overweight, there is no law that prevents them from going around the scales.”

But Len A. Sanderson, the state highway administrator, is impatient with the Highway Patrol’s contention that it can’t hire enough officers. He heads the Division of Highways, which is responsible for maintaining the state’s 78,615 miles of highways.

“They’re saying they can’t get the people, but we got ’em,” Sanderson said. “Why can’t they?”