If northern Idaho ever achieved anything close to a consensus, it came three years ago when their southern neighbors proposed to open up the region's highways to larger trucks.

No, the answer came.

Don't subject this end of the state - with its peculiar geography, weather and river systems - to trucks that are 12 tons heavier and hauling a 24-foot pup trailer just because pilot studies said it worked out all right in the relative flatlands of southern Idaho.

But economic interests - such as Clearwater Paper and Idaho Forest Products Group - prodded state lawmakers to raise weight limits from 105,500 pounds to 129,000 pounds.

Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter also went along - provided the Idaho Transportation Department could justify giving its approval to specific routes.

Just the same, the governor offered northern Idahoans assurances that "safety must be the highest priority, addressing necessary and prudent restrictions on use of designated routes."

Before any heavy trucks proceeded, the idea would be carefully vetted.

Besides, most of this activity probably would occur along the region's major north-south route, U.S. Highway 95.

So imagine the region's surprise to learn that the ITD was considering the following routes for this super-sized transports:

  • State Highway 12, from Kooskia to Kamiah. Then State Highway 13, from Kamiah to Grangeville, where the heavy, longer trucks can access U.S. 95 and travel south to the Interstate highway system.

Chief among this route's problems is Harpster Grade. It's steep. It's narrow. It has twists and turns. There are no passing lanes. It has no emergency escape ramp. Even where there are shoulders, they're barely present.

There's potential conflict with anglers who fish for steelhead and salmon along the South Fork of the Clearwater River.

Being delayed by heavy, longer trucks could provoke passenger motorists into taking chances to pass them.

Truckers will tell you it's as unforgiving a stretch of highway as you will find - especially in winter.

Along SH 13's 26 miles from Kooskia to Grangeville, accidents have claimed four lives in six years.

From 2009 to 2013, truckers had 238 percent more accidents than along the stretch of State Highway 162 from 4-Corners to Kamiah.

SH 13 produced nearly 45 percent more trucking accidents than U.S. 95 from Grangeville to Lewiston.

It had nearly 64 percent more trucking mishaps than U.S. 95 between Riggins and Grangeville.

And SH 13 saw nearly 65 percent more trucking crashes than U.S. 95 between Riggins and Fruitland.

Sens. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, and Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood, may not agree on much. But here, they're singing in unison.

"Undoubtedly, allowing 129 GVW (gross vehicle weight) trucks on this route will mean more accidents, more injuries and more deaths," Keough wrote state Transportation Director Brian Ness two months ago. "This type of increased suffering seems needless and in direct conflict to the Legislature's codified concerns about safety, the governor's writing concerns about safety and ITD's own rules and procedures that place priority on safety."

Also in November, Nuxoll told Ness: "I think (Idaho Transportation Department ) will have trouble standing up to scrutiny if Highway 13 is approved for 129 GVW when these safety numbers are under consideration."

  • The previously mentioned route between 4-Corners and Kamiah. Some critics of the SH 13 proposal are willing to accept the SH 162 as a safer alternative for the longer, heavier trucks. But as elsewhere in northern Idaho, you have to wonder how secondary highways will bear up under the brunt.

Tuesday, a subcommittee of four Idaho Transportation Board members deadlocked on the proposals, effectively putting them on ice.

But it only got that far because Idaho Transportation Department staff members apparently saw none of the problems so apparent to the people who live near and drive these highways.

All of which leads to this question: If the people assigned to put safety first can say yes to putting bigger and heavier trucks on these highways, when, if ever, are they prepared to say no?

Tags

Recommended for you