Fast track for logging trucks through Duluth?
As the Northland braces for yet another winter storm, 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.
About two weeks ago, 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.
During a visit to Duluth last week, 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.
Nolan was unavailable for comment Sunday but earlier issued a statement, saying: "The situation in Duluth is difficult for drivers and pedestrians on Superior Street, especially during this winter, when the piles of snow are further restricting space and vision. It's also difficult for the truckers, whose preference would be to use ... I-35 and travel around the city."
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."
David Montgomery, chief administrative officer for the city of Duluth concurred, saying: "From our perspective and from the MIC's perspective, the interstate is the proper place for trucks of this size to be traveling, because the freeway is engineered to safely handle trucks of this size."
Montgomery pointed to a logging truck that lost some of its load at the corner of London Road and 26th Avenue East earlier this month as evidence of what can happen if the trucks run on city streets.
"What if a logging truck overturned at Lake and Superior at 12:30 in the afternoon with all the pedestrians and traffic we have there?" he asked, adding: "That's not the kind of load you want bouncing around on a downtown street."
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.
Montgomery said Duluth would partner with Superior and work to enlist the support of Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Ashland, as well, in hopes that a joint effort might help steer legislation through the Republican-led House.
"Perhaps this is an opportunity for one of those rare bipartisan efforts," Montgomery said. "We know it will be an uphill fight, but we're hoping we can make some headway.
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.
Montgomery 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."