Council Tightens Trucking Rule

Wednesday, November 13 2013

A controversial trucking law got a tune-up at last night's city council meeting.

The council approved an amendment to a rule on hydraulic fifth-wheels -- a loading tool for tractor-trailers. It’s already illegal to drive a truck with the fifth-wheel in a raised position. The amended law takes that a step further. Now, it will be illegal to drive with the fifth-wheel in anything but “the lowest possible position.”

Also illegal: Modifying fifth-wheel frames by placing a metal block beneath the hydraulic lift. That keeps the fifth-wheel from going down all the way and damaging the frame, but it also changes the angle at which a load rests.

Councilor Roger Rowland served as mayor pro tem this week in the absence of Mayor Shirley Marquardt. As soon as the fifth-wheel issue came up for a vote, Rowland moved to postpone it until the next council meeting. Councilor Zoya Johnson seconded the motion.

Rowland said he talked to one local shipping company about fifth-wheel use before the meeting. He came away thinking the law still needed work.

"I think there are some genuine concerns that I think can be addressed and I’m not sure the amendment that we passed last meeting addresses those concerns good enough," Rowland said. "So that was my reason for making the motion."

Councilor Dennis Robinson said there was no reason to wait.

"I am not willing to postpone this at all," Robinson said. "I am basing my decision, solely, on an engineer’s recommendations to the city that we paid good money to get."

Robinson referred councilors back to a 2011 road study from Shannon & Wilson, an environmental consulting firm. They examined truck weight reports taken by public safety officers and concluded that hydraulic fifth-wheels distribute a load unevenly when they’re raised. The study said uneven weight distribution could be causing Unalaska’s roads to fail.

Robinson said that’s an especially big problem considering the size of the loads that trucks carry here.

"I realize that hauling fish in this community is its lifeblood," Robinson said. "We have to haul fish, and the fish that we have to haul happens to be export loads that are not allowed without overweight permits anywhere else in the United States. You cannot take one of these Maersk boxes, transport it to Seattle and haul it legally on the roadway."

Councilor Johnson asked industry representatives in the audience to clarify their objections to the law. A Horizon employee volunteered to speak, and said that the shipping industry is not solely to blame for road wear. Heavy loads of fuel and other freight may be a culprit, too.

In the end, the motion to delay a vote on the trucking amendment failed 2-3, with Rowland, Johnson, and councilor Dave Gregory voting against it. The amendment then moved to a vote. It was approved unanimously, with all five councilors present voting in favor. Councilor Tom Enlow was not at the meeting.

The amendments to the fifth wheel law are set to go into effect on January 1, 2014.

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