Despite warnings about wrecks and shattered pavement, Kentucky’s General Assembly continues to add more categories of trucks that are authorized to exceed the 80,000-pound weight limit on state highways.
Gov. Matt Bevin signed House Bill 174 into law on Wednesday to give a “10 percent weight tolerance” to trucks carrying poultry and chicken feed, which means they legally can rumble down the road with an extra four tons.
The House is expected to vote in coming days on another measure, House Bill 184, to let trucks weigh 120,000 pounds — 50 percent more — if they carry “metal commodities,” defined as the product of any metal-producing industry being taken from a mill or storage facility to a market for processing.
As influential industries have lobbied in Frankfort for heavier trucks, lawmakers have carved out various exceptions for coal, steel, meat, farm crops, logs, wood chips, phosphate muck, crushed stone, concrete, asphalt, rocks, fill dirt and solid waste, among other cargo.
The exemptions do not cover interstate highways, which are federally regulated, steering heavier trucks onto the two- and four-lane state highways that often pass directly through communities.
Supporters of the exemptions say it helps Kentucky industries save money when they can send heavier trucks on fewer trips. Tyson Foods alone could cut by 2,400 a year the number of trips its trucks make delivering chicken feed to poultry farms around Kentucky, said state Rep. Richard Heath, R-Mayfield.
“House Bill 174 brings much needed relief to the poultry industry of Kentucky — which, by the way, is the number one agriculture industry in the state, with $1.2 billion in annual sales,” Heath told his colleagues on the House floor Feb. 10.
When another lawmaker asked Heath why his bill creates a special exception for chickens, he explained: “Many industries already enjoy this 10 percent waiver. We’re adding the poultry industry to it.”
But critics say weight exemptions can be risky. Heavier trucks are harder to maneuver, need more room to brake and cause greater damage to roadways at taxpayer expense, which is why states enacted weight limits in the first place, they say.
Adding just 10 percent to a big rig’s overall tonnage increases by 33 percent the amount of damage that it can be expected to inflict on a bridge, according to Advocates for Highway & Auto Safety, a group that lobbies for stronger traffic safety laws. Taxes and fees on trucks weighing more than 40 tons pay the cost for barely half of the damage they cause, the group said, citing federal transportation data.
Federal regulators say there were 3,598 fatal crashes involving large trucks in 2015, the most in seven years, killing 4,067 people. Kentucky had 76 fatal crashes involving large trucks in 2015, killing 81 people.
In Boyd County, Emergency Medical Services executive director Thomas Adams and his paramedics personally witness the carnage following truck crashes.
Adams — who heads the Kentucky Ambulance Providers Association — says he long has opposed allowing heavier trucks on state highways, although he acknowledged Friday that “it’s a losing battle. I expect them to just continue to increase truck weights for everyone.”
“I understand commerce and the need for companies to make a profit,” Adams continued. “But you’re sacrificing public safety when you make these trucks more than 80,000 pounds. When trucks wreck, they wreck big. Sadly, we see a lot of truck wrecks, and it’s usually because someone got in their way and they couldn’t stop in time. How does it help to add even more weight to their loads?”