Truck driver Phil Hegfors has been hauling lumber from the forests around his Ely, Minn., home to the paper mill in Cloquet for more than 20 years. But all that experience didn't prepare him for a recent scare.
Because of a discrepancy between federal and state weight limits for logging trucks, Hegfors was doing his usual "wiggling" last week, staying off the interstate and driving through Duluth streets with 99,000 pounds of logs.
A Honda in front of him pulled over to the right, but as Hegfors started to drive around him on Superior Street, "all of a sudden, he swung a U-turn in front of me and I really had to clamp on and lock my brakes to prevent from hitting him."
U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn., has asked U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx to slam the brakes on the dangerous situation that forces logging trucks to stay off Interstate 35 for 20 miles between Duluth and Cloquet. But Nolan was just told by Foxx's staffers that their boss lacks the legal authority to issue an emergency declaration to waive the 80,000-pound limit. Nolan was hoping for at least a temporary exemption until the 30 inches of snow clogging Duluth streets melts and eases the dangers.
"If you look at the dozens of huge logging trucks rolling down Superior Street all day, in and around traffic and lots of pedestrians, while I-35 is empty," Nolan said, "it's clearly a heck of a lot safer having those trucks driving 20-plus miles around the city on [I-]35 than up and down the main streets of downtown Duluth."
Nolan said he'll work with U.S. Rep, Sean Duffy, R-Wis., drafting legislation giving Foxx authority to resolve the issue. He acknowledged that won't help this winter.
The confusion stems from 1980s legislation that set uniform weight limits at 80,000 pounds on federal freeways, while Minnesota law allows forest-product trucks to carry 99,000 pounds during certain seasons. Several states with higher weight limits were grandfathered out of the 80,000-limit while others, such as Maine, have been able to win exemptions in federal transportation bills.
But not Minnesota.
Hegfors said he could save hours and boost his slim profit margins if it weren't for what he calls the "ridiculous" conflicting regulations. But if he ignores the federal weight limits and drives on I-35, he faces fines of more than $8,000.
To exempt Minnesota, it only takes "a signature magically on a piece of paper and it's done," he said.
It's not that simple. Transportation experts worry that if similar bottlenecks around the country prompt a series of exemptions, the effort could lead to a domino effect. Those added weights could require costly redesigns of bridges and interchanges when revenue is dwindling because the gas tax hasn't gone up for years and more efficient cars are using less fuel, bringing in less gas tax money. Congress dodged the weight issue last session, opting for a big cost study due out in October.
In the meantime, Duluth residents watched a log truck dump lumber on London Road earlier this month.
"Thank goodness that spill didn't happen near pedestrians," Mayor Don Ness said.
"It's more appropriate to have these massive logging trucks on engineered federal highways," the mayor said. "They are causing tremendous damage to our city streets that aren't designed to handle that much weight."
During a recent lunch on Superior Street, Ness counted four logging trucks chugging through his downtown in 90 minutes. He said that's one of the reasons Superior Street will need a $15 million overhaul the next five years.