Timber hauling bill moves ahead despite road damage concerns

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U.S. Department of Agriculture

A truck hauling timber.

A proposal to increase the weight limit for hauling timber and other farm products, which has quietly emerged as one of the most controversial issues in the legislative session, remains alive after House action.

After about an hour of debate on Tuesday, the House passed Senate Bill 2418, which would increase the weight limit tolerance for harvest permit vehicles and vehicles loading and unloading at state ports. The Senate passed the bill in February. It would take effect July 1.

Transportation and local officials say that the bill, designed to add more leeway for trucks to haul heavier loads in Mississippi,  could further damage the state’s already vulnerable roads. Backers of the bill said it would be a boon to truck drivers and companies that make agricultural products.

Larrison Campbell, Mississippi Today

Rep. Michael Ted Evans, D-Preston

Rep. Michael T. Evans, D-Preston, described the proposal as a “working man’s bill” and said letting trucks haul more materials would also put fewer trucks on the road.

“We have to support our industries, and we need to support our truckers and make sure they’re making a living,” Evans said.

The dispute centers on state-issued harvest permits, which cost $25 and are issued to owners and operators of vehicles that haul specific materials, such as sand, gravel, agricultural products and unprocessed forestry products. The Mississippi Department of Transportation issues more than 160,000 “overdimensional” permits for oversize and overweight commercial vehicles every year, which includes harvest permits.

MDOT allows trucks to haul 80,000 pounds on all roads and 84,000 pounds with a harvest permit; these rules do not apply to roads designated low weight.

Right now, those hauling trucks are not allowed to weigh more than 80,000 pounds – or 40,000 pounds on each end on the truck – and there is a 5 percent tolerance above that weight on each axle, which is often within a set of wheels. This leaves room for another 2,000 pounds on either end.

Should any product shift around while a truck is on the road, the bill would allow the tolerance for each axle to increase. The bill proposes raising that tolerance to 10 percent, allowing up to 4,000 pounds on each end instead of 2,000 pounds.

During floor debate, several lawmakers said their local officials opposed the legislation citing already crumbling infrastructure throughout the state and the Legislature’s failure to pass a substantive roads maintenance package.

Rep. Bob Evans, D-Monticello, questioned the role of axles to keep weight evenly distributed on a truck.

“You are going to have a whole lot of weight on a much smaller pavement area by increasing the weights on these pull axles. That’s the problem. That’s why we have multi-axles, isn’t it? To spread the weight out. … Now you’re asking us to spread the weight out without adding axles, so it’s going to be destructive to our already crumbling highways, right?”

MDOT officials say bridges in the state are designed to meet the permit’s current 5 percent tolerance.

“When you go up another five percent, the axle weight, which is the most critical impact on any road or bridge, … is a point load,” Mississippi Department of Transportation Executive Director Melinda McGrath said during the Feb. 27 House Agriculture committee meeting. “That’s what breaks your bridge.”

Mississippi Transportation Commissioner Mike Tagert, who represents the commission’s Northern District, also said after the Feb. 27 committee meeting that increasing a vehicle’s axle weight is what damages roads and bridges, rather than the vehicle’s total weight.

“That’s why this bill is so detrimental to our entire system,” Tagert said. “We think this is going to exacerbate the problems we already have in our regular system. … All of our state and local bridges will need to be rerated based upon standards and guidelines of the federal highway system, and that’s going to cost a tremendous amount of money on the local level.”

Rerating the bridges would cost counties and MDOT about $28.5 million, MDOT officials said.

City of Clinton Mayor Phil Fisher speaks out against Senate Bill 2418 at a March 5 news conference.

Phil Fisher, the mayor of Clinton, said the cost of bridge inspections would mainly come from counties. MDOT would be required to analyze approximately 80 bridges in the state system, while counties must analyze approximately 1,400 bridges in the local system, he said.

Fisher, a former Hinds County supervisor, said counties do not have extra money to support these county bridge updates.

“What we have is a real issue here that is being exacerbated by this Senate bill,” Fisher said. “You have bridges and roads that are in failing conditions. Now they are going to introduce a bill to worsen the situation. They are not providing any money to help relieve the additional burden that they are throwing on everybody. Counties don’t have the money either.”

Fisher’s office also brought attention to current problems in bridge infrastructure, particularly in Hinds County.

Mark Jones, a spokesman for the city of Clinton, said the county was forced to shut down one bridge on Kennebrew Road in north Hinds County that connects Highway 49 to Highway 22, and another on Tinnin Road from Highway 22 to Carsley Road. Both are heavy farm-to-market roads, he said.

He said the only way to get back down to Highway 49 if you live in north Hinds County is to come down Tinnin Road to Kickapoo Road, but a bridge on Kickapoo Road, which is also heavily traveled by school buses, just had its weight limit decreased on Monday, MDOT officials said.

Supporters of the bill have argued that fewer trucks will need to travel across county and state bridges if the weight limit tolerance is increased, which would take away some of the impact on roads and bridges.

However, Fisher said that having fewer, but heavier, vehicles coming across a bridge is not the best solution.

“I understand getting the harvest in, especially in counties that have even more agriculture than Hinds County,” Fisher said. “But for right now, leave everything like it is and don’t make anything worse.”