State weight restrictions in spotlight of road debate

By: Tiffany Esshaki | C&G Newspapers | Published March 18, 2019

METRO DETROIT — The Michigan Department of Transportation announced last week that additional restrictions will be tacked on to the state and local road weight restrictions, which took effect Friday, March 15.

Each year, the restrictions are put in place as the winter frost begins to thaw from the surface downward, melting snow and ice, and saturating the ground. The roadbed, damp and weakened, is more susceptible to giving way as the temperatures rise and fall during the spring, and when combined with the wear and tear of heavy vehicles, that causes potholes and even worse road damage.

From the Upper Peninsula to the lower part of the state, signs will be posted along certain routes requiring as much as a 35 percent weight reduction. Those restrictions will be in place until MDOT determines that enough moisture has escaped to make the roadbeds stable again, according to Dan Weingarten, a communications representative for MDOT’s Superior Region.

But many local residents won’t be behind the wheel of a heavy-duty hauler when they see this article — so what do we care?

As Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ramps up to fulfill her campaign pledge to “fix the damn roads,” some wonder whether her efforts are for naught if Michigan doesn’t first pass legislation to lower the maximum allowable cargo weight. After all, the state permits 164,000 pounds of gross weight on trucks, which is more than double the 80,000 pounds mandated by the federal government. Michigan’s higher limit is a grandfathered policy.

The state also, however, requires that weight be better distributed, Weingarten said. Michigan demands 11 axles for trucks carrying that max weight load. The federal standard is four axles for 80,000 pounds. That comes out to each axle in Michigan carrying not more than 13,000 pounds, while federal regulations limit trucks to 17,000 per axle.

“While Michigan allows heavier overall truck weights than some states, we require more axles on the vehicles, so the weight on each axle — which is what stresses the pavement — is less.”

But don’t think that idea hasn’t crossed the governor’s mind, said Robert Leddy, the deputy press secretary for Whitmer.

“The administration explored many options to develop a comprehensive plan that fixes the roads in the present and maintains them in the future, including any impact commercial vehicles have on our roads,” Leddy said in an email. “What we found is that heavier trucks are able to distribute their load across a greater number of axles, which greatly reduces their footprint.”

The spring weight restrictions have more to do with unstable soil during weather fluctuations than the general weight allowance year-round, he said. And when residents ask why legislators won’t knock down the poundage for the rest of the year, Weingarten said you’d better be ready for more traffic — and even more potholes.

“If we changed to a lower gross vehicle-based weight limit, transport companies would need more truck trips to carry the same amount of goods,” he said in an email. “Estimates are that this would add 10,000 to 15,000 trucks to Michigan roads, creating more traffic congestions and heavier axle loadings than we have now.”

There might be a bit of a connection between the state’s policy on payload and the crummy roads. Last fall, Chris Douglas, of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, penned a report on road funding in Michigan. Among other things, he found that registration fee schedules are designed to collect more revenue from heavier vehicles.

But there are ways around that.

He explained in his report that trucks carrying farm commodities, milk or logs can pay a substantially reduced registration fee that’s not based on gross weight but instead is equal to 74 cents per 100 pounds. That applies to around a third of commercial trucks registered in Michigan and accounts for an estimated $40 million annually in reduced revenue.

“The annual registration fee paid by farm, milk and logging trucks is often less than that for a typical passenger car,” Douglas writes. “In December 2012, farm trucks paid on average an annual registration fee of $72.21, milk trucks paid $129.80 and logging trucks paid $107.30. The cost of a typical passenger car’s registration fee was approximately $120.”

Then there’s the gas tax. If you balked at Whitmer’s suggestion that customers pay 45 cents more per gallon at the pump, you may want to sit down — because interstate trucks are covered by the International Fuel Tax Agreement, according to Douglas, and those rates haven’t increased with inflation. So, in short, trucks are causing more damage than their fees to the Michigan Transportation Fund can pay for.

Tapping into that loss of potential cash is one of the ways Whitmer’s camp plans to collect the funds needed to — all together now — fix the damn roads.

“Under our proposal, trucks would pay their fair share in the form of fuel taxes, because most commercial trucks average 5 miles per gallon,” said Leddy.