The state House is about to take up Senate legislation to allow 53-foot-long tractor-trailers on all U.S., N.C. and interstate routes in North Carolina, and to give legislators a say in marking certain dangerous roads off-limits.
But who would actually decide whether to ban long trucks from, say, the hair-raising hairpins of U.S. 64 from Highlands to Cashiers?
The politicians? Or the state DOT experts?
SB 1695, sponsored by Sen. Clark Jenkins of Edgecombe County, would end local government authority to ban 53-foot trucks from highways inside city limits. DOT would continue to have this responsibility statewide, but DOT would have to consult a legislative committee co-chaired by Jenkins before any road could be marked off-limits to the long trucks:
The Department may, after consultation with the Joint Legislative Transportation Oversight Committee, prohibit a motor vehicle combination on portions of a primary route or other State route if it can clearly show through traffic engineering studies that the operation of a motor vehicle combination on that route cannot be safely accommodated and that the route does not have sufficient capacity to handle the vehicle combination.
What does "consultation" really mean?
Two General Assembly staffers said The N&O erred today in reporting that "legislators would make the decision." The N.C. Supreme Court has established that such regulatory powers rest with executive branch agencies, not with the legislature, said Bob Weiss of the legislature's Fiscal Research Section.
"In the real world, of course," Weiss added, "a hostile reception at a 'consultation' might lead the agency to change its mind on some proposal; but it is the agency that has the power to make the decision."
I think we're talking about that real-world, hostile-reception scenario. DOT might retain legal power, but it might not have the political power to defy a powerful legislative committee.
DOT has received plenty of hostile receptions before Jenkins' oversight committee in the past couple of years, and never more so than on the issue of long trucks.
Jenkins agreed with truckers and other business interests who contend DOT has been too restrictive in the past, putting unfair limits on which roads are OK for 53-footers.
Jenkins doesn't want DOT to have this power any longer. He intends to have his oversight committee decide which roads will be off-limits to 53-foot trucks.
"They [DOT] can provide a list to Joint Transportation Oversight, and Joint Transportation Oversight can review the list and decide whether or not to approve it," Jenkins said in an interview last week.
I asked why he wanted to take this authority from DOT and give it to legislators.
"Otherwise you could wind up with the same thing we had before," when DOT allowed the longer trucks on only a few roads, Jenkins said.
It happens that Jenkins also has his hands on DOT's purse strings. As chairman of the Senate Appropriations Transportation Subcommittee, he's the Senate's chief transportation budget writer.
The State Highway Patrol has been pretty vocal in its objections to Jenkins' bill, warning that it would cause accidents. DOT has been muted in its comments.
Kevin Lacy of DOT, the state traffic engineer, says Jenkins' bill "may have the potential of limiting our flexibility" to regulate long trucks. But he says DOT won't wait for a committee meeting when quick action is warranted.
"If there's an urgent situation we need to take action on," Lacy said, "I will assure you that the DOT will take urgent action."