During rush hour this morning, more than 50 logging trucks will rumble down the old brick streets of downtown Duluth. The truckers are protesting a federal law that limits the loads they can carry on interstate highways.
Loggers contend that it is more expensive and more dangerous to drive through areas like downtown Duluth, where heavier loads are legal. Some safety advocates say the trucks don't belong on the highways.
Clint Krueger owns a small logging company near Barnum, about 35 miles south of Duluth, down Interstate 35. He and his drivers operate six trucks. He spoke Wednesday from a crackly mobile phone as he drove a loaded truck to a rail yard in Superior, Wisconsin. Instead of simply hopping on the interstate, Krueger siad he had to drive through several residential areas to obey the weight limit laws. And that's dangerous, he said.
"As everyone knows, our trucks have some blind spots. We can't stop on a dime, sometimes we're trying to make corners, and people are pulling up on the inside of the trucks," Krueger said.
The restriction is also costly, he said. "It causes extra wear and tear on our trucks, we burn more fuel doing the starts and stops and everything else."
And every dollar is crucial to small logging companies, said Ray Higgins with the Minnesota Timber Producers Association. Downturns in the construction and paper industries have hurt loggers. Finances were already tight for loggers, Higgins said, and they have gotten worse with the demise of two more customers: the Verso paper mill in Sartell and a Georgia Pacific hardboard plant in Duluth.
"That just tightens everything up," Higgins said "It reduces the demand for wood, creating more competition among these logging companies, and they're doing anything they can to reduce costs."
The federal government caps truck weights at 80,000 pounds on interstate highways. But many states are less restrictive. In Minnesota, logging trucks can carry up to 90,000 pounds on state-owned roads.
For years, Minnesota loggers have lobbied for an exemption to the interstate weight restrictions. This year the U.S. House approved an amendment to allow heavier trucks on I-35 from Hinckley to Duluth. But it died in the Senate. Last year, Congress did allow trucks in Maine and Vermont to haul loads up to 100,000 pounds, for the next 20 years. (Download and read the full report here.)
Critics say it was a deadly change.
There were more crashes and deaths during a one-year pilot program in those states, said Tara Gill, program director for the Truck Safety Coalition in Washington.
"They found that Vermont's fatal large truck rate tripled, and Maine's experienced a 43 percent increase in fatalities with the six axle trucks," Gill said.
But the raw numbers are small. Vermont went from one death to three, Maine from four to seven deaths.
Accidents also increased on Vermont's state roadways during the pilot program. That surprised the U.S. Highway Safety Administration, which anticipated significant safety improvements by shifting more truck traffic to the interstate.
But Gill said, "If you open up the interstates to the bigger, heavier trucks, you're also not simultaneously closing off the smaller roads and county roads to them. You're merely expanding the range you're allowing them within your state."
It's too soon to judge, the Highway Safety Administration said, and that at least three years of data is needed to draw accurate conclusions about safety and trucks' wear and tear on roads and bridges.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation, however, has studied wear and tear. Bill Gardner, who directs MNDot's Office of Freight and Commercial Vehicle Operations, said it seems counterintuitive, but heavier trucks can actually reduce the impact on roadways. He said larger loads reduce the number of trips required, and those trucks have more axles.
"If you add additional axles, you're actually spreading the weight out and it has the net effect of reducing the number of trucks on the roadway," Gardner said.
By reducing the number of trucks, there might be safety benefits to heavier loads, Gardner said. Congress has called for more research on how heavier trucks affect safety and infrastructure.
Despite today's truck rally in Duluth, it might be a couple more years before any exceptions to the federal weight limit are considered.
Editor's Note: This story includes a mathematically inaccurate quote from Tara Gill of the Truck Safety Coalition concerning the increase in truck fatalities in Maine. Relying on data the Coalition acquired through a Freedom of Information Act request, Gill said the growth from four to seven fatalities was an increase of 43 percent. It is, instead, a 75 percent increase. Gill subsequently acknowledged 75 percent is the correct number. Four is 43 percent less than seven.