Officials ask that logging trucks be allowed on I-35
Forum News Service
Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Crosby, continues to plead the case for an emergency federal order allowing logging trucks to avoid snow-narrowed city streets and instead travel on Interstate 35 to the Sappi paper mill in Cloquet.
Earlier this month, Nolan met with Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx to ask that federal authorities waive the current weight restrictions on logging trucks using the 20-mile stretch of freeway between 21st Avenue East in Duluth and Minnesota Highway 45 in Scanlon.
At present, logging trucks weighing in excess of 80,000 pounds cannot lawfully use the freeway and are instead diverted onto city streets and county roads.
But that could change if a request by Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton to ease weight restrictions gains any traction in Washington, D.C.
Charles Zelle, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Transportation, lent his support to Nolan’s efforts to reroute the logging trucks.
“Our commercial vehicle experts would be highly supportive of getting that traffic off of city streets. Our interstates were made for that purpose — to handle heavy trucks,” he said.
However, MnDOT District Engineer Duane Hill said it’s not the state’s call what kind of trucks are allowed on the federal interstate system.
“We’re hoping for a change in the federal weight allowances, because it’s clearly a difficult mix to have heavy commercial traffic flowing through downtown Duluth. But for now, all we can do is provide information about what’s legal and what’s not,” he said.
Jim Swiderski, Nolan’s legislative director, said support for the federal policy change at the state level probably will prove key to any successful request.
“We’ve had nothing but 100 percent cooperation from the governor and from Commissioner Zelle’s office. They understand the fix Duluth is in,” he said.
Yet it remains unclear whether Foxx possesses adequate authority to lift the weight restrictions.
The freeway weight restrictions also are causing headaches in Wisconsin, according to Ron Chicka, director of the Duluth-Superior Metropolitan Interstate Council. He said that logging trucks coming from Northwestern Wisconsin have been forced onto Belknap Street and Douglas County roads.
“Some of these roads are getting beat to heck because they cannot handle the weight,” said Chicka, who contends it would make much better sense to put logging trucks on the freeway.
He said it’s time the federal government address “old, antiquated weight restrictions on our nation’s interstate system.”
Today’s economics necessitate that logging trucks be filled to capacity, according to Scott Dane, executive director of Associated Contract Loggers and Truckers of Minnesota. He explained that about half of logging companies are now either breaking even or operating at a slight loss. Most of the logging companies that have managed to remain profitable during an ongoing downturn in the forest products industry are eking out profit margins of only about 1-3 percent.
“With fuel prices as high as they are, it’s imperative these trucks operate at their full capacity,” Dane said. “To lighten your load is to operate at a loss.”
Chicka said that while traveling back roads instead of the freeway adds only a few miles to the distance logging trucks must travel, it more than doubles the time the trip takes. Instead of the 24 minutes it would take to reach Sappi from 26th Avenue East in Duluth via freeway, the alternative route typically requires 50 minutes of drive time, he said. That, too, drives up costs.
More logging trucks have traveled through the Twin Ports to Sappi in recent years, as other mills have closed.
If Foxx determines that he lacks administrative authority to issue an emergency weight limit waiver for logging trucks, Swiderski said Nolan will shift his attention to a possible congressional fix.
Dane noted that logging trucks in Maine and Vermont have been allowed to exceed federal weight restrictions on interstates.
“It shouldn’t be an insurmountable mountain. It has been done before,” he said.
“When you get down to it, this is a common sense issue that should be based on the safety of the general public and the impact these trucks are having on city and county roads,” Dane said.
David Montgomery, chief administrative officer for the city of Duluth said the challenge may be to get Washington lawmakers’ attention and make them understand the local situation.
“Here, we have a road explicitly designed for these kinds of loads and traffic, and we’re not able to use it,” he said. “That’s what’s so wildly frustrating.”