This news story originally provided by The Lexington Herald-Leader
March 9, 2005
40-ton load limit sustained
FRANKFORT - The Kentucky House last night killed a controversial bill that would have put more overweight trucks on state roads.
The House voted 50 to 33 not to approve a Senate-modified version of House Bill 8, which would have let gravel, rock and sand trucks haul at 60 tons, a 50 percent increase over the state's usual 40-ton limit.
Currently, only coal trucks can travel at 60 tons, prompting complaints of unfairness from politically powerful road builders who need gravel.
The House approved the bill last month, and the Senate approved it last night by 23 to 12, after exempting Louisville and Lexington streets from having to bear overweight trucks carrying any kind of cargo.
But the bill found a chillier reception when it returned to the House for concurrence.
In the two weeks since the first House vote, lawmakers said, they were deluged with complaints about the risks of 60-ton trucks from a growing coalition of city and county leaders, environmentalists, truck drivers and residents of rural Eastern Kentucky, where tractor-trailers hauling coal are a common and loathed sight.
Also clouding the bill's chances were public comments by Gov. Ernie Fletcher. Yesterday, Fletcher reiterated his earlier doubts about the bill and told reporters that even the modified version didn't satisfy his concerns about traffic safety and road damage.
In a floor speech against the bill, Rep. Ancel Smith, D-Leburn, referenced a fatal crash in Martin County on Monday involving a coal truck that apparently lost control.
"An overloaded coal truck that cannot stop steers into the other lane and hits and kills a 55-year-old man," Smith said. "And we've got a 27-year-old man that will be facing manslaughter charges. And you think that this won't happen to you?"
Several Eastern Kentucky lawmakers who backed the bill urged lawmakers from other parts of the state to respect their region's wishes on a measure most likely to impact the coal fields.
The bill's sponsor, Rep. Howard Cornett, R-Whitesburg, pleaded for support, saying his district's economy would suffer without it.
There is a lawsuit pending in Pike Circuit Court, filed last year by a gravel-trucking firm, that challenges the constitutionality of Kentucky allowing coal to be hauled at 60 tons, but not gravel.
The suit has merit, Cornett said. Unless the legislature levels the playing field, he said, the courts probably will strike down the weight exemption for coal, hurting the coal industry and the independent truckers who have invested a fortune in 60-ton rigs.
"We've got a lot of hard-working men and women, particularly in Eastern Kentucky, who are depending on this bill to pass," Cornett said.
But Thomas FitzGerald, director of the Kentucky Resources Council, said the suit is likely to remain pending, perhaps in the appeals process, until the legislature meets again, in January. That gives lawmakers time to study the issue rather than slap together a proposal that seemed to please almost no one, FitzGerald said.
Critics of the bill pointed out that trade groups representing the coal and trucking industries in Frankfort stayed neutral on the measure, neither supporting nor opposing it.
Rather, they said, the bill was pushed on behalf of Leonard Lawson, one of the state's dominant road builders, whose family has given $76,000 to state legislative candidates in recent years, plus $96,000 combined to the state Democratic and Republican parties and $13,000 to Fletcher.
The Lawson family has not responded to calls seeking public comment.
Among those accepting the largest donations from the Lawson family were some lawmakers most active for the bill, including Cornett, who has taken $10,000, and Sen. Ray Jones, D-Pikeville, who has taken $12,000. Jones led the fight for the bill last night in the Senate, which voted 23 to 12 for it with no debate.
Yesterday, Cornett and Jones both described Lawson as a friend, and they agreed his rock quarries and asphalt plants would benefit from the bill. But they denied that the road builder pushed them to support it.
Jones said he understood the anxiety some motorists feel about sharing the roads with 60-ton tractor-trailers. But limiting gravel haulers -- or for that matter, coal haulers -- to 40 tons would mean putting twice as many dump trucks on the roads, which also would pose a threat.
Jones said he and his family drive on Eastern Kentucky roads every day.
"If I thought this was really a public safety issue," he said, "I
wouldn't be for it."