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July 25, 2018 11:00 AM, EDT
Opinion: Don’t Penalize Truckers for Rhode Island’s Bridge Woes

Remember that feeling when a teacher sat you in the corner after wrongly accusing you of something? I believe this nation’s truckers have been placed in the proverbial corner by the state of Rhode Island. They don’t deserve the punishment of a trucks-only tolling initiative that the state’s RhodeWorks program will inflict, because there is no definitive proof that trucks are the primary cause for deterioration of the state’s bridges — as its Department of Transportation has claimed.

Chris Maxwell

Maxwell

The trucking industry struck back on July 10, when American Trucking Associations and three private carriers sued Rhode Island DOT’s director to stop the RhodeWorks program. The lawsuit states, in part, that the program is discriminatory — specifically, that trucks are compelled to disproportionately pay for bridge repair and replacement. To win, the plaintiffs must definitively rebut Rhode Island’s claim that heavy trucks are the sole reason for damage to its bridges.

On this point, engineering data could help, as most bridges are designed to safely carry heavy trucks for five or more decades. Yet, RIDOT has not routinely utilized commercially available technologies to capture the necessary engineering data. Rather, the RhodeWorks program is based on the premise that trucks are the reason Rhode Island’s bridges are in such poor condition and that conclusion was reached on the basis of subjective visual inspection, not engineering data.

While most truckers adhere to legal highway weight limits, only a small percentage exceed legal limits. Several years ago, Vermont and Maine allowed overweight trucks to use their highways and then concluded there was no induced bridge damage. Plus, the process for rating bridges is arguably flawed. State DOTs are mandated by the Federal Highway Administration to visually inspect each bridge biennially, but when the FHWA studied the visual inspection process nearly 20 years ago, they concluded that process was “subjective” and “highly variable.” Nearly two decades have passed and yet this process remains in place.

In a follow-on paper, FHWA stated that visual bridge inspections were incapable of supporting optimal spending, yet Rhode Island taxpayers have been funding bridge repairs and replacements for decades based solely on visual condition assessments — all while more effective condition assessment technologies, such as structural monitoring technologies designed for the purpose of load rating and to determine structural integrity, have been commercially available.

One also must question why Rhode Island leads the nation in the percentage of structurally deficient bridges. Nearby Massachusetts, New York and Connecticut also experience substantial truck traffic, so why are Rhode Island’s bridges in significantly worse shape? For example, FHWA’s 2016 National Bridge Inventory statistics show that in Massachusetts, 9.3% are structurally deficient; in Connecticut, 8% are structurally deficient; and in New York, 11% are structurally deficient. But in Rhode Island? 24.9% of bridges are structurally deficient. Given that trucks flow through all these states in the Northeast, why does Rhode Island DOT conclude the sole blame lies with truckers?

Bridges deteriorate for a variety of reasons, such as poor design, construction errors and inadequate maintenance. For example, heavy use of road salt on steel and reinforced concrete can degrade a bridge well in advance of its intended life span. If you notice exposed rebar on concrete beams or heavy corrosion on steel, a DOT’s lack of maintenance caused that condition, not truckers.

Several years ago, Congress asked the U.S. Department of Transportation to study truck size and weight issues as they relate to bridges. Both of the principal investigators were highly qualified structural engineers, and yet the study was inconclusive in terms of quantifying the impact of trucks on U.S. bridges. There was no definitive data to support any other conclusion. However, Rhode Island continues to blame truckers for its bridge problems.

The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials stated in its Manual for Bridge Evaluation that: “The actual performance of most bridges is more favorable than conventional theory dictates.” Because all state DOTs are members of AASHTO, it is fair to ask why RIDOT hasn’t embraced that statement and employed advanced technology to more objectively and accurately assess bridge condition before targeting truckers with these tolls.

So, instead of taking steps to improve its maintenance practices — such as washing salt from bridges or implementing advanced condition assessment technology to limit the impact from subjective visual inspection — RIDOT would rather blame the truckers. What it lacks is proof that they’re to blame.

A native of Rhode Island, Chris Maxwell has been an active member of the Rhode Island Trucking Association since 1987, serving as chairman of RITA’s board of directors before being named president and CEO in 2011. RITA is a nonprofit organization whose membership is made up of truck owners, fleet owners, private and for-hire motor carriers and allied industries, including manufacturers, dealers, service stations and suppliers. Since 1931, RITA has represented and promoted all motor carrier interests on the state level.