‘It’s hurting us bad’: New bridge weight limits worry industry leaders

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Robert F. Bukaty, Associated Press

FILE - In the August 7, 2017 file photo, a logging truck travels on the Katahdin Woods and Waters scenic byway in Patten, Maine.

A new state law further complicates the labyrinth large haul truck drivers must navigate while traveling rural Mississippi — a move that key business leaders say harms commerce in the state.

The law, which went into effect on July 1, changed how heavy trucks are weighed, forcing the Department of Transportation to “post” nearly 200 new bridges, limiting the weight allowed and forcing trucks with heavier loads to find alternate routes or risk fines and long-term damage to the bridges.

The weight limits of the bridge postings vary by bridge, so some trucks along their routes could legally cross some posted bridges but not others. While hundreds of newer bridges remain open to all traffic, the new law means that 450 bridges are closed statewide and more than 2,000 state and county bridges are now posted.

In a state where agriculture and forestry are among the top grossing industries, the new law and the ongoing bridge crisis is dipping into the pocketbooks of farmers and the companies they work for.

“It’s hurting us bad,” said David Livingston, executive director of the Mississippi Loggers Association, which represents close to 1,000 timber workers across the state. “Agriculture — timber, poultry and agriculture as a whole — is what funds and drives this state. Driving even just ten miles out of the way is going to put a financial burden on a whole lot of people.”

Livingston specified one way in which loggers are affected: Driving 10 miles around a bridge that has weight limits costs loggers $2.00 extra per ton, he said. Trucks in Mississippi can weigh up to 84,000 pounds to drive across state bridges that have no weight limits, but under the new law, about 200 bridges that were previously wide open are now limited.

“Say a bridge along the loggers’ route has now been posted (limited) to 26 tons,” Livingston said. “That’s $52 added to the freight. So if you want to load the trucks lighter to meet that requirement and avoid driving 10 miles around it, you have to average in the cost of having to add more trucks to haul the same amount of material in the same amount of time, plus truck insurance rates, plus the extra fuel costs. Those costs multiply tenfold.”

Transportation officials from MDOT joined representatives from the Federal Highway Administration and Office of State Aid Roads on Sept. 6 to meet with concerned business and interest group leaders to discuss the impact of the new law.

“We understand that every one of these posted bridges is an economic roadblock,” said Willie Huff, MDOT director of enforcement. “But we have to follow the law, and it’s a public safety matter, and we’re all about public safety.”

Many of the new bridge postings are on large state and federal highways that serve as key industry routes across the state. Dozens of bridges are now posted on every U.S. Highway running through the state with the exception of all the federal interstate highways. Even more postings occur on the smaller state highways that serve as entry points to farms and timber land statewide.

Mike McCormick, president of the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation, expressed major concern over whether the bridges that have recently been posted would ever be reopened to large trucks again. MDOT officials said bridges were assessed on a case-by-case basis.

“You’re repairing the bridges often times and getting (smaller vehicles) over the top, but I’m paying ad valorem tax on my place to get timber hauled to market or grain hauled to market,” McCormick said. “From the taxpayer standpoint, I just want to know how often is this going to happen to where we’re going to repair parts of this bridge but it’s not going to get us back up to where you can haul timber across it?”

MDOT officials lobbied the Legislature against passing the law earlier this year, knowing it would affect commerce. In statements after the law went into effect, MDOT all three Republican transportation commissioners slammed the new law.

“MDOT provided information to legislators about the potential fiscal impact from this legislation,” said Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall in July. “When changes are made to restrictions and weight limits for commercial vehicles the impacts may not be immediately obvious, but they can be far-reaching and costly.”

Commissioner Mike Tagert said in July: “This increase in posted bridges will have a severe impact on commerce and travel around the state. This is effectively restricting commerce, which is the last thing Mississippi needs right now.”