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Virginia governor, lawmakers back tolls for I-81 upgrades

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Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam calls Interstate 81 “unreliable.” He said he supports legislation to add tolls to the road to pay for the improvements. (Courtesy: STATE OF VIRGINIA)

RICHMOND, Va. — Tolls could soon be coming to Interstate 81 in Virginia.

Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam and Republican lawmakers said at a Capitol news conference Tuesday the highway is too often the scene of long delays because of crashes and a dedicated source of funding is urgently needed to make improvements.

The highway stretches 325 miles along the western part of the state and is heavily trafficked by tractor trailers. There are more than 2,000 crashes on the road each year, with more than a quarter involving heavy trucks. There are about 45 major crashes a year that take more than four hours to clear.

“Increasingly, I-81 is unreliable,” Northam said. “The road is a clear safety problem.”

Northam and lawmakers are backing a $2 billion plan that would widen the highway in some areas, lengthen merge lanes, and make other improvements designed to reduce the number of crashes by 450 a year.

The governor said he supports legislation to add tolls to the road to pay for the improvements. A proposal advanced by the Commonwealth Transportation Board would charge trucks 15 cents a mile and cars 7.5 cents a mile. That would be about $50 for trucks and $25 for cars making the entire 325-mile trip one way. The tolls would be cheaper at night and regular commuters in cars and small trucks could pay a $30 annual pass to avoid toll fees under the proposed plan.

Northam and lawmakers were quick to add they are still working on the specifics of toll pricing and are open to other ways of paying for the improvements, which could include raising regional sales and gas taxes along the I-81 corridor.

“I just want to see something done this year,” said Republican Del. Steve Landes.

Truckers and manufacturers said they would unfairly bear the brunt of paying for the highway’s improvement if tolls were added and said a gas tax increase was preferable.

“This is a litmus test for us,” said Virginia Manufacturers Association CEO Brett Vassey. “If you want more manufacturing, you’ll find an alternative funding other than tolling. If you want less manufacturing, put the tolls on 81.”

Dale Bennett, president of the Virginia Trucking Association, said he’s already spoken with truck drivers who plan to use other state roads that run parallel to the interstate in order to avoid tolls.

“They can’t absorb that cost,” Bennett said.

Both Vassey and Bennett questioned the state’s calculated economic benefits of using tolls, saying officials did not do enough to survey truck companies and other businesses based along the I-81 corridor.

State transportation officials said fewer crashes would shorten delays and lead to about $1.1 billion in lower trucking costs over a 40-year span.

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The Nation

ATA hints it may sue Virginia over proposal to toll Interstate 81

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The proposed toll legislation for Interstate 81 would charge commercial trucks at 17 cents per mile, personal vehicles at about 11 cents per mile and offering an annual pass to commuters in passenger vehicles. (Courtesy: WIKIPEDIA)

RICHMOND, Va. — The American Trucking Association hinted Thursday it may sue the State of Virginia over legislation that proposes charging tolls on Interstate 81.

The ATA did so in a letter to Connecticut Gov. Ralph Northam opposing the legislation which Northam touts as the best way to fund improvements to the 325-mile interstate between Bristol and Winchester.

The bill proposes tolling commercial trucks at 17 cents per mile, personal vehicles at about 11 cents per mile and offering an annual pass to commuters in passenger vehicles.

The letter, signed by Jennifer Hall, the ATA’s general counsel and executive vice president, legal affairs, says that if adopted in their current form would not only be poor public policy, but would raise serious legal issues and may create an “impermissible burden” on interstate commerce.

The proposed plan has four options for tolling.

The ATA letter dealt with the option that would toll all vehicles with an annual pass available exclusively to automobiles.

“The car-only annual pass proposal is unlawful under the U.S. Constitution because it represents an impermissible burden on interstate commerce,” Hall wrote. “More specifically, the U.S. Supreme Court has explained that, under the Commerce Clause, a transportation user fee is permissible only “if it (1) is based on some fair approximation of use of the facilities, (2) is not excessive in relation to the benefits conferred, and (3) does not discriminate against interstate commerce.”

Plan’s car-only annual pass option would fail this test for a variety of reasons, the ATA said, noting:

  • User fees would bear no relationship to use of the tolled roads;
  • Tolls on commercial vehicles would be excessive in relation to the benefits conferred;
  • The plan favors noncommercial vehicles over commercial vehicles, which power interstate commerce.

The ATA said by allowing automobiles the opportunity to pay a one-time fee for unlimited travel over the course of the year, but to deny that flat-rate opportunity to trucks, means that the proposal is not “based on some fair approximation of use.”

On the contrary, for a passenger car availing itself of the annual pass option, its user fees will bear no relationship whatsoever to its use of the tolled roads. Trucks, by contrast, will have no choice but to pay on a trip-by-trip basis, the federation claimed.

Hall said the proposed toll scheme discriminates against interstate commerce by favoring noncommercial vehicles over commercial vehicles—i.e., the very vehicles by which interstate commerce moves.

“The Supreme Court has expressly held that highway user fees ‘discriminate against out-of-state vehicles’ when they predictably ‘subject them to a much higher charge per mile travelled in the state,’ and ‘do not even purport to approximate fairly the cost or value of the use of [the] roads,” the letter said. “That is precisely what the proposed toll scheme does, by allowing automobiles — and only automobiles — the option of an annual flat fee that translates to a predictably lower charge per mile the more such vehicles use the road.”

If the ATA files suit against the toll plan in Virginia, it would be the second lawsuit regarding tolls in the past six months.

“We encourage you and the Assembly to think carefully about these issues before Virginia takes any further steps in the direction it appears to be heading; and to bear in mind that the auto-only annual pass option will be vulnerable to a legal challenge if it moves forward,” Hall concluded letter.

If a lawsuit filed against the director of the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, ATA charges that the Rhode Island tolls violate the Commerce Clause of the Constitution by imposing “discriminatory and disproportionate burdens on out-of-state operators and on truckers who are operating in interstate commerce.”

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association recently filed a lawsuit against Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb, the Indiana Finance Authority, the Indiana Toll Road Concession Co., and the commissioner of the Indiana Department of Transportation challenging the increased tolls on heavy vehicles on the Indiana Toll Road. They were implemented last October.  8

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The Nation

Runaway ‘bobtail’ tractor crashes into Atlanta motel

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Police said this “bob-tail” tractor left the road, hit a parked car and ran into the side of a motel. (Atlanta Channel 2 Action News photo)

ATLANTA — The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported Thursday that a driver is in custody after crashing a tractor-trailer into a motel in northwest Atlanta and running from the scene, officials said.

Atlanta Fire Rescue spokesman Sgt. Cortez Stafford told AJC.com that the truck went “partially” into the side of the Airway Motel in the 700 block of Fulton Industrial Boulevard on Thursday morning. There were no reports of injuries.

The “bobtail” tractor-trailer left the road, hit a parked limousine and went into the one-story building about 9:15 a.m., Atlanta police Officer Jarius Daugherty said.

The driver ran but was captured nearby, police said. His identity and the charges against him have not been released.

A woman was inside the motel room where the truck hit, but she was able to escape by climbing out of a back window, Channel 2 Action News reported.

“I just started crying and screaming,” the woman, Lashonda Allen, told the news station. “I was just praying to God the semi-truck didn’t catch on fire.”

Crews are checking the structural integrity of the building and investigating what sparked the crash.

By noon, the truck had been removed, and a gaping hole remained in the brick building.

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The Nation

Oops! New York state did not previously enforce ELD rule, now making up for lost time

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The ELD mandate was a 2012 law passed under former President Barack Obama. The provision was championed as a way to protect the safety of truckers and others on the road. The Trucker file photo.

ALBANY, N.Y. — There’s always a straggler in the bunch. Unknown to many, New York state has not previously been enforcing the federal electronic logging device (ELD) mandate because it never adopted the ELD rule under its state laws and thus lacked the authority to enforce it.

According to the Trucking Association of New York (TANY), the New York State DOT has now issued an emergency rulemaking and begun enforcement of the ELD mandate.

TANY added in a news release that they have been told carriers not in compliance with the ELD mandate will be placed out-of-service as early as Thursday, January 17.

The ELD rule issued by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration went into effect in December 2017 and state governments were to have followed suit by incorporating the federal ELD rule into their state laws.

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA) has pursued lawsuits with certain states that have enforced the mandate while lacking a state-level law.

The ELD mandate has been unpopular among some truckers, who say it harms their schedules, take-home pay, and safety. Other truckers have said they like electronic logging once they get used to it.

When OOIDA sued New York, their complaint was dismissed — not because the New York court agreed with the state’s actions to enforce the federal law, but because New York wasn’t enforcing the law in the first place, according to Business Insider.

The snafu came to light in a State of New York Supreme Court ruling and opinion issued on December 31 by Judge Richard M. Platkin.

“Drivers are not being stopped, cited, or placed out-of-service pursuant to the ELD rule,” Platkin wrote.

Marc Berger, the chief motor-carrier investigator for New York’s Department of Transportation, said in the December 31 ruling that there are “no notices of violation or uniform traffic tickets being issued citing ELD provisions.”

The other defendants in the case — New York’s state police and the Department of Motor Vehicles — also stated that the ELD law hasn’t been enforced.

The ELD mandate electronically enforces the Hours of Service (HOS) law, which has been in effect since the federal government began regulating trucking in the 1930s. The HOS law stipulates that truckers can drive no more than 11 hours in a 14-hour period, a provision that some truckers say doesn’t reflect the nature of their work.

New York state said in the ruling that it does in fact enforce the HOS, but that the law is more challenging to enforce if ELDs are used.

The ELD mandate came into effect by means of a 2012 law passed under former President Barack Obama. The provision was championed as a way to protect the safety of truckers and others on the road. FMCSA estimated in 2014 that ELDs could prevent up to 1,714 crashes, 522 injuries, and 24 deaths each year.

But some truckers maintain ELDs are doing the opposite, while truck lobbying groups say it’s really not ELDs drivers have a problem with, it’s the unbendable nature of the HOS, which need more flexibility.

“The electronic logs are supposed to make it safer, but really it has created a hazardous race to beat the clock,” career truck driver Steve Manley, 51, told Business Insider. “Drivers are now more reckless than ever trying to make it to their destination before the clock runs out with the mandatory breaks and such.”

A TANY news release said despite New York State not enforcing the ELD mandate, it did enforce HOS and that FMCSA roadside inspections and on-site audits enforced the ELD mandate.

“Due to this, TANY continued to advise members to be in compliance with the ELD mandate regardless of the situation with New York enforcement,” the association said.

 

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