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Published August 29 2007

Minn. truck-weight debate intensifies

ST. PAUL – Proposals to ease weight restrictions on trucks rolling down Minnesota roads – a hard sell before the Interstate 35W bridge collapse – could face a tougher time now.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s administration ran into resistance in 2006 when it asked the Legislature to broadly elevate weight limits. But truckers moving certain farm and timber products have been given permission to carry extra loads.

It’s a debate likely to draw attention in the aftermath of the collapse due to concerns that heavier loads may shorten the life span of bridges.

Advocates for a blanket weight restriction change argue that the step would make hauling more efficient and help them compete with the Dakotas and Canada. Opponents consider big trucks a safety hazard.

After struggling to achieve change in 2006, the state Department of Transportation lent its support in 2007 to industries pushing their own legislation as long as they followed agency recommendations, said Betsy Parker, the agency’s government affairs director. Those guidelines include adding axles to spread the weight over more tires, and posting restrictions or closures on bridges that can’t bear heavier loads.

A 2006 study commissioned by the department concluded that higher weight restrictions would make deliveries more cost-efficient and may even do less damage to pavement, according to Cecil Selness, MnDOT’s director of freight and commercial vehicle operations.

“If you can carry more per truck you can reduce overall the amount of trucks that are in the traffic mix, and that has a positive effect,” Selness said.

The report recommends increasing truck weights from the current 80,000 pound cap to between 90,000 and 108,000 pounds. The actual amount would depend on the number of axles and how they are configured.

Still, the study by Cambridge Systematics Inc. of Bethesda, Md., said allowing heavier trucks on state and some county roads would add about $2.7 million a year in additional bridge costs.

Steven Frank, president and CEO of the American Automobile Association of Minneapolis, doesn’t put much stock in the MnDOT-commissioned study. He said it failed to adequately consider the amount of traffic that would be diverted from interstates.

“The foregone conclusion was that truck weights would be increased, and it was just a matter of determining the best way to get it done,” Frank said.

Agriculture industry lobbyist Bruce Kleven said heavier loads would reduce the number of trips for farmers by 10 percent to 12 percent, which produces less pollution and higher profits.

“I know this bill is probably more sensitive now with the collapse,” he said. “I want to be clear that the farm groups were never in favor of doing something to increase wear and tear on the roads and bridges.”

Parker said she would not know until the fall whether the Pawlenty administration would push an across-the-board increase in truck weight limits next year.

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Information from: Star Tribune, http://www.startribune.com