Mar 16, 2005

The tollway bandits

More truckers appear ready to dodge highway payments

For one afternoon, I thought I belonged in the backseat of the Bandit’s sweet black Trans-Am. I was 10 years old and just “snuck” into my first PG movie by myself. The man tearing my Smokey and the Bandit movie ticket didn’t even raise an eyebrow. Oh yes, Burt Reynolds needed a renegade like me as a co-pilot.
It wasn’t until later that I found out PG actually meant “Parental Guidance Suggested”—not required. Still, while watching Burt Reynolds jump the remains of a few culverts and accelerating through loop-de-loops to shake Jackie Gleason’s Smokey character, I began developing a warmer appreciation for the truckers pulling loads across the U.S.
Sure, I had my moments with them prior to the Smokey and the Bandit movies. The child-like arm pumping while mom passed an 18-wheeler was at least 50% honk-effective. However, the big rigs always carried a beast-like persona. It wasn’t until the first Bandit flick when I realized the true human nature of the drivers. Behind most teethy grilles is the caring nature of the Tooth Fairy. Those sucking on diesel always seemed energized to look after the ones on the road.
Holders of the highway thrones can deliver a hard-hitting wrath, too. The moving armies are seeking new territory in Illinois, where the price of riding the toll road has doubled since Jan. 1. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, truck traffic on those costly corridors has dropped almost 8%. Tollway officials were projecting an 18% decline. Apparently, truckers are using all the free mileage they can, then exiting onto the local streets before hitting plazas which can charge up to $10 per rig.
Meanwhile, in a timely display of irony, Senators Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) reintroduced legislation that would apply truck size and weight limits now applied to the interstate network to the entire National Highway System (NHS). If passed, the act would cap truck trailer length at 53 ft on the NHS and extend the 80,000-lb gross weight limit to the entire highway network. The new standards would apply to more than 100,000 miles of highway, and those supporting the bill say it would save taxpayers more than $326 billion in infrastructure costs over the next 20 years.
Tollways are being groomed to be the next financial god of the highway and bridge industry. With federal fuel receipts losing their pep, more and more states are converting to the pay-as-you-go network. The cash-deprived state of California is considering a massive tolling plan, and states like Missouri, Texas and North Carolina are already locking into the idea.
Heavy trucks, however, are like hippos during a ballet recital. Place them in a compact environment and there really isn’t a whole lot of grace, and the stage, designed to carry the light butterfly types, is mercilessly hammered with every move. Local roads, whether they’re state highways or simple boulevards, were not designed to carry increased loads of truck traffic. In fact, any DOT will tell you that the reason most interstates, the weightlifters of the region, will crumble at a much faster rate is because more tanks storm through the area.
My concern is obvious—is Illinois the start of a national trend? As more tolls pop up and more are increased, will the Macks, Freightliners and Internationals of the world seek escape hatches? Are we headed toward an enormous display of pavement ruins? Tolls will certainly raise the money to take care of their own, but won’t the cry for help at the local level offset any financial progress?
I do sympathize with the haulers, and, seriously, it has nothing to do with my fondness for Smokey and the Bandit movies. They’re already dealing with an obnoxious hike in fuel costs, and any more operating inconveniences may force several to abandon the trailer all together. So why isn’t there a push to increase transportation fees? Some of the major firms may be able to handle the increase without raising cost, leaving the smaller operations at the mercy of a competitive marketplace. After 9/11 the federal government passed a tax to help the airlines increase security. Couldn’t the same concept help trucking companies cover the increase use of tolls?
We could be in a tight spot, here. Quick, somebody call the Bandit. I have shotgun.

About the author

Bill Wilson<br>
Editor in Chief<br>
[email protected]