Richland commissioners, state senators split on road trains

If a 'road train' pilot program is successful in North Dakota, trains of approximately three trailers would be allowed on national network highways and interstates within the state.

Political leaders in Richland County, North Dakota, are divided on a state bill described as misunderstood by a sponsor.

With a 5-0 vote Tuesday, Feb. 16, the county board of commissioners approved a resolution opposing Senate Bill 2026. The bill urges Congress to temporarily amend cargo-carrying truck length and weight restrictions on state highways and interstates that are part of the national network, the resolution states.

Amending the restrictions allows North Dakota and surrounding states to conduct a “road train” pilot program. If it’s successful, the resolution continued, road trains would be allowed on national network highways and interstates within the state. The road trains are expected to be three trailers or 200 feet long, weighing 360,000 pounds and being prohibited from transporting hazardous materials, CDL reported in January 2021.

Sens. Larry Luick, R-District 25, and Jason Heitkamp, R-District 26, were among the affirmative votes when SB 2026 passed 30-17 in January. The bill’s sponsors include Sen. Oley Larsen, R-District 3, who described the introduction and management of road trains as similar to a football passed among branches of government.

“With that football, the federal government says this is a great idea, but they won’t do anything until North Dakota brings forth a law,” Larsen said. “The state comes to us (in the legislature), saying it won’t do anything until the feds do something. In the third place, any industry won’t invest in any equipment unless the feds say we can do it. So we’re stuck with this football.”

Richland County Commissioner Sid Berg, who motioned for the local resolution opposing road trains, shared his concerns.

“I don’t know how they can do a pilot program without taking safety into consideration right away. As for damage to our roads, whether it’s one road or 100, it’s still going to cause damage. I’m not sure how the people in this county will accept that,” Berg said.

SB 2026 includes an amendment giving the ability for $3 million in repairs to damaged roads, Luick said. He stressed that the bill itself is just encouraging the North Dakota governor to do a pilot program, a project that also has approval from the highway department.

“My efforts, from the very beginning, have been about looking at lightening up the weight on the axles,” Luick said. “I’ve done enough research to see that there is little to no possibility of road damage happening if we use our heads and don’t overload these trucks.”

Road train supporters say the total length would not be as vast as it sounds. Luick contrasted a road train’s anticipated length to the total length when a wind tunnel blade is transported, comparing the length of a road train’s trailer to length of a commercial trailer for businesses like FedEx. Larsen made similar comments.

The length is still on the minds of Commissioners Berg and Perry Miller, who seconded the motion for the local opposition resolution.

“I don’t know how you address the safety of passing a truck that long,” Miller said. “Most people are going to assume a standard length when they pass a truck. All of a sudden, there’s a train that’s much, much longer. I can see that being a potential area of concern.”

Freshman state Sen. Jason Heitkamp, R-District 26, said that it was his understanding that the pilot project may have a span of Jamestown, North Dakota to Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, and would not include the use of Richland County roads. Citing his new status, Heitkamp directed Daily News to Larsen.

“When anyone says this is dangerous, that’s a total fabrication,” Larsen said. “A grain truck, overloaded without its tags and with an inexperienced driver, that’s dangerous. This bill is speaking to not overloading the axles.”

Nevertheless, Berg is wary.

“The money we spend to recondition our blacktop (is enough),” he said. “We don’t want to see the damage we’d get with a road train. We get enough damage. They might call it a pilot project, but we’re not in agreement with it. We don’t think it’s right for our county.”

Miller agreed, saying he couldn’t understand how something like this could be misunderstood.

“What’s to misunderstand with trucks of that length and size?” he asked. “They say this is going to be a study. What’s that going to cost the taxpayers? There are more pressing issues right now in North Dakota.”

“Crossover” for the North Dakota Legislative Assembly is scheduled for Friday, Feb. 26. By the close of the day, all bills must have been voted on in their respective chambers.

Following crossover, the legislature is on recess until Wednesday, March 3. Once resumed, the state senate evaluates and votes on bills passed in the state house and vice versa.

Limited to 80 legislative days, the North Dakota assembly is scheduled to conclude by April 30, 2021, in Bismarck. Daily News will continue to follow SB 2026 and other bills affecting the state, Richland County and the Twin Towns Area.

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