Tensions brewing over bridge weight limits

An interesting puzzle: How do you get into Aberdeen without crossing a bridge?

It’s not just a challenging mental exercise. With lower weight restrictions now being enforced on all bridges leading into Aberdeen (particularly the Chehalis and Wishkah bridges), heavy equipment and large trucks cannot legally come into Aberdeen. Essentially, when it comes to heavy loads and trucking, Aberdeen is an island you can leave but not get back on.

The problem is further exacerbated by the work on the pontoon project requiring large loads and heavy equipment.

“The bridge and road restrictions in this area are crippling our ability to do commerce,” said Kathi Hoder, Aberdeen city councilwoman and owner of Hoquiam Licensing and Transportation Agencies in Aberdeen.

Truckers are being hit hard in the pocketbook with detours that take literally hours of extra time, gallons of costly fuel, and near-miss accidents on curvy roads, icy in winter, like the infamous 13 Corners.

For years, law enforcement seemingly turned a blind eye to the situation as trucks that exceeded the weight limits crossed the bridges, but lately Washington State Patrol has been enforcing the weight restrictions. A single over-the-weight limit trip on the Chehalis River Bridge can cost a trucking company upwards of a $17,000 fine. Get enough fines, and a truck can be impounded.

When contacted by The Daily World, State Patrol Lt. Dennis Bosman said that the DOT sets the weight limits, and the State Patrol’s job is to enforce them.

With tensions brewing, Hoder hastily convened a meeting in the licensing office. About 25 people showed up, including representatives of trucking companies, Aberdeen and Hoquiam police and the Washington State Patrol, as well as Aberdeen Mayor Bill Simpson, Kevin Dayton of the Department of Transportation and Aberdeen State Rep. Brian Blake.

Dayton and Blake both said they were shocked to learn of the problem.

Sometimes truckers themselves are shocked. Truckers can’t rely on signs posted before the bridges, because not one of these bridges with weight restrictions have signs posted. There is a website where a trucker can look up any restrictions on his route, but one trucker at the meeting argued that, in reality, that’s just not how being a trucker works. It’s more about cruising the road than the Internet.

Hoder expressed her frustrations and anger over the crippling impact this is having on Aberdeen’s industry and economy.

The meeting was intended to let officials know of the problem so something can be done. Trucker after trucker explained the magnitude of the problem.

Dayton is regional administrator for the state Department of Transportation. “This is part of my region and it hasn’t clicked with me that we have a freight problem,” he said.

Pontoon project

Ironically, a DOT project is further exacerbating the problem: the work on the giant pontoons to fix the 520 floating bridge in King County. Big heavy equipment is needed to work on the project.

One local company with a truck yard in south Aberdeen, Brundage Bone Concrete Pumping, originally bid on some work due to its proximity to the project. Owner Jim Wright said his trucks had been driving over the Chehalis River Bridge for years. Recently he began having repeated trouble getting his trucks over the bridge to work at the pontoon project because they were being pulled over. Rather than the easy, 15-minute drive, the trucks were forced to take a circuitous, dangerous route that took between 45 minutes to an hour.

When law enforcement threatened to impound one of his trucks if it was seen crossing the bridge again, Wright thought about throwing in the towel on doing business in this area, he told the crowd assembled Friday night.

Instead, when he cooled down some the next day, he got on the phone and started making calls.

Eventually, he contacted enough people and got a letter from DOT granting his company an exemption to cross the bridge with a higher weight load.

To minimize impact to the bridge, the truck carrying the heavy load must straddle the lane line and take up both lanes in one direction on the four-lane bridge, with no cars being able to pass the truck as it crosses over the bridge.

While the exemption works for his company, it doesn’t apply to any other truckers in operation, which is another issue that rankles Hoder.

Frank Scherer of Quigg Brothers Construction noted that as far as finding solutions, time is of the essence. “We can’t wait, we need immediate action. We need the tickets to slow down,” he said in the meeting.

Another member of the audience called for leniency until a decision can be made on how to fix the situation.

Action promised

The result of the one-hour meeting was the decision that Hoder would be the point of contact between the trucking industry, Blake’s office and DOT. DOT will work on finding quick, short-term solutions to some of the problems, whether it be exemptions like the one granted to Brundage Bone Concrete Pumping or quick-hit repairs to the bridges that may lessen any problems and allow the weight loads to be higher.

The ultimate solution — new bridges — isn’t in the cards for the foreseeable future. “The bridges are old, decrepit and beat up. But it takes money and it takes time,” the DOT’s Dayton said. The operative word is money from the state.

“We need truckloads of money, but not so heavy a truckload that we can’t get it into the Harbor,” he said.

Deborah Tracy, a Daily World writer, can be reached at 537-3936 or by email at dtracy@thedailyworld.com