Local view: Transportation reform key to keeping Duluth competitive with neighbors

In downtown Duluth, the new Maurices building, which is nearing completion, stands as a reminder of the need to keep our community and our region competitive as the race for jobs and business growth intensifies.The Twin Ports have been a Midweste...

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Ben Carlson

In downtown Duluth, the new Maurices building, which is nearing completion, stands as a reminder of the need to keep our community and our region competitive as the race for jobs and business growth intensifies.
The Twin Ports have been a Midwestern transportation hub for better than a century now, with water, road and rail routes all intersecting in Duluth and creating many jobs for folks who never have been afraid to work hard in any weather.
But Duluth’s geographic position, adjacent to Wisconsin, now puts the future vibrancy of its transportation scene at risk. Wisconsin, and all of Minnesota’s other neighboring states, have truck-weight laws more permissive than Minnesota’s for people who haul construction materials. That means a business in Superior or points south has advantages not enjoyed by its counterpart in Duluth or points north.
For some time now, a coalition of business interests has been working closely with leaders like state Sen. Roger Reinert of Duluth to find a solution, allowing the people who haul construction materials the same rights and responsibilities as those who haul agricultural products and timber.
Recent work by U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan put a very important federal exemption in place, allowing heavier timber trucks to use a limited stretch of Interstate 35 to haul paper mill-bound logs from the freeway’s starting point near London Road in Duluth to the Scanlon exit in Carlton County. Moving these timber trucks to the freeway makes good business sense while also relieving congestion and increasing safety in downtown Duluth.
Most Minnesota trucks now are limited to hauling 80,000-pound loads on five axles. The fix to this issue, which would give Duluth-area businesses the same advantages as their counterparts on the other side of St. Louis Bay, is legislation sitting in a conference committee at the state Capitol. It would allow trucks hauling construction materials to carry up to 90,000 pounds on six axles or 97,000 pounds on seven axles.
The trucks in question would be no larger than those currently on the road - not by even an inch. But they would have more axles, which means more sets of brakes for a safer journey and a more evenly distributed load. U.S. Department of Transportation studies show more axles means less wear on roads and bridges.
And since much of the work done by Minnesota construction companies each year is contracted by the Minnesota Department of Transportation and other local units of government, a slight increase in truck weights would save taxpayers up to 4 percent on most public road projects.
Local units of government would have the final say on where these trucks are allowed, permitting them to only travel designated routes and having the power to say no to these trucks if they wish.
Most importantly for a community like ours, where Superior Street is a primary transportation artery, this legislation would mean fewer trucks on the roads by a factor of thousands. That translates to less traffic, less pollution and more efficient commerce.
When businesses are looking for a home or a place to expand, there are plenty of reasons they choose Duluth, and our region is competitive in a changing economic climate. Along with the harsh weather we sometimes endure during winter months, we don’t need our state’s out-of-date truck-weight laws giving them another reason to look elsewhere.

Ben Carlson is operations manager of Arrowhead Concrete in Duluth and is a board member of the Aggregate & Ready Mix Association of Minnesota.

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