BISMARCK — North Dakota lawmakers fielded several opposition letters this week in response to a proposed pilot program for lengthy semi-trailer trucks known as "road trains." Still, they overwhelmingly endorsed a bill on the program, arguing that its critics have misleading information.
Lawmakers on the state's Agriculture and Transportation Committee voted 12-1 on Thursday, Oct. 8, in support of the road train pilot bill, providing their stamp of approval ahead of the upcoming legislative session and marking a small step forward for the implementation of the multi-trailer truck platoons in North Dakota.
But Thursday's committee vote also provided a window for opponents of the program to air their concerns.
"AAA has been opposed to heavier and longer trucks for a number of years," wrote Gene LaDoucer, public affairs director for AAA's North Dakota chapter. "We have determined that as weight and length are added, these vehicles become more dangerous to our members and the motoring public at large."
In addition to AAA, dissenters to the bill include local organizations like the North Dakota Association of Counties, the Morton County Highway Department and the McKenzie County Sheriff's Office. In their letters, the groups cited safety issues around larger trucks and potential wear and tear on North Dakota's roads.
Sen. Oley Larsen, R-Minot, who authored the bill, and Sen. Larry Luick, R-Fairmount, have been the primary drivers behind the road train plans. Larsen's bill calls on Gov. Doug Burgum to waive load and length limits for trucks on North Dakota highways, while Luick has been working to establish partnerships with neighboring states to push forward road train legislation at the federal level.
Larsen and Luick both argue that critics of the idea have exaggerated the actual weights and lengths of the trucks that will operate on North Dakota roads, noting that a pilot program would be very limited in scope.
During the committee meeting, Luick acknowledged that fully-stocked triple trailer road trains could reach up to 360,000 pounds and around 191 feet in length — well above the current legal limit. But he said platoons of this size are not imminent in North Dakota.
While the state Department of Transportation would be tasked with regulating road trains in North Dakota, Luick said he wouldn't expect a pilot to include more than a handful of road trains statewide, likely not exceeding two trailers in length.
All of the bill's opposition letters were submitted just in the last few days, and Luick said he suspects the handiwork of a national lobbying group. The nationally-focused Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association wrote one of the letters, and the North Dakota pilot has also been criticized by the Washington, D.C.-based Coalition Against Bigger Trucks.
Several of the lawmakers who voted in favor of the bill on Thursday did so with some hesitation, saying that they would like more information and more data before making a final call.
"I like the innovation of this and I like the opportunity to see if it works," said Sen. Janne Myrdal, R-Edinburg. "I'm at risk because a lot of people in my district want us to defeat this today, but I agree with Sen. Larsen on the point that we don't know enough yet.
Today, long road trains are legal in Australia, where the truck platoons are commonly used by mining companies in the remote western Outback. Luick and Larsen said they have studied the use of road trains independently for years, and want a shot at testing them out in low population areas of North Dakota.
"I just think it's worth a try. This is the Great Northern Plains," Larsen said after the meeting. "It's not like we're in downtown San Francisco trying to order Dilly Bars."
All but one of the lawmakers in attendance on Thursday voted in favor of the bill. Sen. Kathy Hogan, D-Fargo, voted against it, though she noted that her concerns were not with road train safety or infrastructure damage, but with the unilateral authority that the bill would grant to the governor.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at email@example.com.