The recent bridge collapse in Minnesota that killed 13 people clearly illustrated a serious national infrastructure problem. Why, then, compound the problem by allowing overweight trucks to travel the nation's roads and bridges?
The Minneapolis bridge collapse sparked concerns about deficient roads and bridges nationwide. According to the National Bridge Inventory compiled by the U.S. Department of Transportation, 1,274 of South Carolina's bridges have been judged structurally deficient, while 827 are obsolete.
The situation is much the same in many other states. In addition, much of the state and national highway system also is badly in need of repair.
Nonetheless, as highlighted in a recent Associated Press story, more than half a million overweight trucks are allowed onto the nation's roads and bridges each year. In fact, the practice is increasingly routine and is taking a terrible toll on our already damaged infrastructure.
The weight limit for nearly all interstate highways is 40 tons. According to a government study, one 40-ton truck does as much damage to the road as 9,600 cars.
But, according to the report, permits often allow vehicles to exceed that amount by two tons in Texas and sometimes by as much as 85 tons in Nevada. Some states grant annual permits that allow trucks to be considerably heavier.
Why do they make exceptions? Many state officials say they have little choice and are simply carrying out the laws passed by their state legislatures. Those laws often are written to benefit specific industries that rely on trucks to ship heavy loads, such as the logging industry in the West or oil and gas in Texas.
Experts say that one overweight truck may not pose an immediate hazard. Even a vastly overloaded truck might safely cross a bridge with a much lower posted weight limit. But the cumulative effect of stress on the steel and concrete supporting the bridge can create a situation such as the one in Minnesota in which the bridge suddenly just gives out.
Many states charge fees ranging from $12 to $1,000 to haul overweight loads. Theoretically, those fees are designed to offset the cost of repairing the wear and tear created by the heavy trucks.
But even with the fees, most states are hard-pressed to keep up with regular highway and bridge maintenance. And the fees wouldn't come close to paying the repairs on a catastrophe such as a major bridge collapse.
Allowing overweight trucks to travel the highways makes no sense on any level. While it might temporarily benefit certain industries, ultimately the burden falls on taxpayers who must pay to repair the damage caused by the trucks and, worse, on those who are injured or killed because of failing infrastructure.
State and national regulators need to set safe weight limits and stick to them. They also need to maintain an adequate numbers of weigh stations to enforce the rules.
Some companies may save money with overweight loads. But, in the end, we all pay.
Vastly overloaded trucks are taking a terrible toll on nation's interstate highway system.
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