Posted on Sep 12, 2007
By April Castro ASSOCIATED PRESS Tuesday, September 11, 2007 More than a half-million overweight trucks are allowed onto the nation's roads and bridges, an increasingly routine practice that some officials say is putting dangerous wear and tear on an already groaning infrastructure. Some experts warned that the practice of issuing state permits that allow trucks to exceed the usual weight limits can weaken steel and concrete, something that investigators say might have contributed to the Minneapolis bridge collapse Aug. 1 that killed 13 people. "We talk about this all the time, and the fear that we have is that we're going to have the same sort of disaster here that happened in Minnesota," said Don Lee, executive director of the Texas Conference of Urban Counties. 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 permits frequently allow vehicles to exceed that amount by 2 tons in Texas and sometimes by as much as 85 tons in Nevada. Some states grant one-time permits that allow trucks to be considerably heavier. Around the country, many transportation officials dismiss such fears as overblown and say roads and bridges are safe, though some express concern that not enough money is being spent to repair the damage done by the extra-heavy trucks. As for why they issue overweight-load permits, many state officials said they have no choice because they are simply carrying out the laws passed by their legislatures. Critics of those laws say they are often written to benefit powerful local industries, such as logging in the West or oil and gas in Texas. In the vast majority of cases, a single truck can safely pass over a sound bridge, even if the rig is way over the posted weight limit. But the cumulative effect of stress on the steel and concrete can eventually prove deadly. In 2000, Milwaukee's Hoan Bridge collapsed when steel girders cracked. Several factors were blamed for the collapse, including a significant number of heavy trucks, some over the normal weight limit, that routinely traveled over the bridge. Many states charge fees ranging from $12 to $1,000 for overweight-load permits, depending on the weight of the load. Those fees are supposed to offset the damage done to the highways. Texas granted nearly 39,000 such permits in the past year, generating $7.5 million, most of which was divided among the state's 254 counties for road maintenance. "That in no way even comes close to covering the wear and tear on our roads and bridges in this state," said Chris Lippincott, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Transportation. Darrin Roth, director of highway operations at the American Trucking Association, said it is not fair to put all the blame on trucks because permit loads are a tiny proportion of total traffic.