Marty Trillhaase, Editorial Page Editor, Lewiston
The Lewiston Tribune 2/4/12
Last year, more than 70 megaloads traveled across north central Idaho highways — often with an unofficial subsidy courtesy of the Idaho taxpayer and motorist.
Among them were 10 shipments along U.S. Highway 12, including four from ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil’s experimental module. At one time, ExxonMobil spoke about running 200 of these rolling roadblocks up U.S. 12 en route to the Alberta tar sands project.
At the same time, ExxonMobil reconfigured megaloads parked at the Port of Lewiston for interstate highway travel and moved 64 of them up U.S. Highway 95.
Each of them paid an over-legal permit fee to the Idaho Transportation Department. ConocoPhillips was charged an average of $2,210 per trip. ExxonMobil’s transports paid, on average, $175. The companies also reimbursed what Idaho spent clearing the highways of snow and for extra law enforcement.
But from the time the megaload plans appeared on the scene, it was obvious the state wasn’t charging enough.
For starters, the fees Idaho charges for the routine task of permitting 65,000 trucks annually that are heavier and bigger than standard-sized rigs haven’t been updated in five years. Those fees now fall about $643,000 short of covering ITD’s processing costs.
That’s the kind of thing that happens when a state’s political mentality confuses fees with taxes. Last year, Idaho lawmakers even refused to increase court costs by $1.50 just to pay for more police officer training.
Now factor in the megaload funding gap. Idaho never envisioned the scope of demands megaloads would place upon its transportation department. These included the hours Idaho engineers devoted to double-checking the structural sturdiness of bridges along the megaloads’ intended route. Or the time engineers spent analyzing how the megaloaders planned to interact with other truckers, motorists and emergency responders on the highways.
Not to mention the hours ITD staffers burned up conducting public hearings or responding to inquiries. Plus there are the legal fees ITD incurred during two contested rule hearings. Just one involving the ExxonMobil shipments cost more than $80,000.
You’ll get an argument about how much this all costs. The Tribune’s Elaine Williams went through the numbers last month and found $190,012 in megaload expenses, some of which was reimbursed by the transport companies.
How much this is costing you is elusive because ITD doesn’t track it.
Now pending before the Legislature is an ITD-sponsored rule that would increase its over-sized truck permits from $18 to $70 each. That addresses the $643,000 gap.
The same measure also empowers ITD to seek reimbursement of the extraordinary costs associated with megaloads. One provision would require megaload transport companies or clients to hire their own engineers to analyze bridge networks. ITD would then review the report.
From there, ITD would have to decide what is a routine expense it would absorb and when it should send megaloaders a bill.
Perhaps this is fighting the last war. Only 14 shipments remain parked at the Port of Lewiston. Other than a couple of inquiries from Harvest Energy, ITD has no megaload applications in its pipeline.
Still, given the scope of ExxonMobil’s initial plan, you can’t be sure whether this is merely a temporary lull. What better time to calmly assess how much engineering, analysis and safeguarding these shipments really demand and making clear it will be the transporters, not the public, who pay the freight?