Imagine, for a moment, driving down a vast expanse of open road alongside mammoth trucks tethered together, the size of trains. These “road trains,” which are about the weight of a full-grown whale, are currently barred in most states due to the significant wear-and-tear costs on roads.
But, if North Dakota lawmakers are successful, these whale-weighted trains may soon be rolling up to an intersection near you. A group of representatives are calling on Republican Gov. Doug Burgum to issue an executive order authorizing a pilot program for road trains in North Dakota.
Lawmakers are also keen on an interstate compact to expand the proposed pilot program to neighboring states such as Minnesota. These road trains will wreak havoc on North Dakota roads, forcing struggling taxpayers to pay for soaring infrastructure costs at the worst possible time. Lawmakers and Burgum should steer clear of changes to truck height and weight limits.
With few exceptions, states haven’t deviated much from federal guidelines on trucks. Since 1982, the maximum trailer length and gross truck weight has been set at 28 feet and 80,000 pounds, respectively. But the chorus to raise these thresholds periodically resurfaces in trade journals and lobbying pitches in the halls of Congress.
There’s plenty of debate about the impact of raising these limits, but the real-world experience of Michigan shows the devastating impacts for taxpayers and drivers. Because of a grandfather provision under federal law, trucks can weigh up to 164,000 pounds provided sufficient axles (up to 11) and appropriate axle spacing/weight distribution. As a result, Michigan drivers see some of the largest, heaviest trucks in the country.
This unique provision has likely caused extensive damage to the state’s roads, highways and bridges. After analyzing data from more than 15 million iPhone dash cam frames, HD map maker Lv15 concluded in 2018 that Michigan has the worst roads in the country. Interestingly, Lv15 found little direct correlation between things like gasoline taxes and taxpayer funding and road quality.
Other factors such as weather and truck rules weren’t examined but should be given greater weight in these investigations. But researchers zeroing in on truck length and weight have found the obvious that these mammoth vehicles pose considerable costs for taxpayers.
Judith Corley-Lay, chief pavement management engineer for the North Carolina Department of Transportation, concluded more than a decade ago that North Carolina taxpayers paid $78 million extra per year repairing the damage wrought by overweight trucks.
Corley-Lay notes, “If you have to treat a road in five years instead of eight, or in eight years instead of 12, there’s a real cost impact.”
And wear-and-tear isn’t the only problem posed by outsized trucks. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, “Multiple-trailer trucks have more handling problems than single-trailer trucks. In general, the additional connection points contribute to greater instability, which can lead to jackknifing, overturning, and lane encroachments.”
Further safety studies are sorely needed, but the analysis conducted thus far has been far from promising. Despite all this research, North Dakota lawmakers continue to press forward in their misguided push to enact the “road train” pilot program. This dubious proposal could not come at a worse time, as the state struggles to recoup billions of dollars in lost tax revenues.
The Bismarck Tribune reports, “Last month, North Dakota's oil tax savings account, the Legacy Fund, posted its lowest-ever deposit: $9.44 million, down from the previous all-time low of $10.24 million deposited in June. The average deposit is about $54 million.” Oil revenue at last appears to be on the upswing, but it would be a shame for these dollars to go toward increased infrastructure costs instead of providing emergency unemployment benefits or healthcare supplies.
Lawmakers and Burgum should reject “road trains” and steer North Dakota in a better direction.