Gibbs to introduce bill to stiffen chain law
SUMMIT COUNTY When semi-truck drivers lose control of their rigs during wintry weather and force the temporary closure of Interstate 70, numerous industries are affected. The tourism industry, the economies of mountain communities and the trucking industry itself all lose money when traffic is stalled on the interstate.But who’s to blame?Should the finger be pointed at truck drivers for failing to comply with the chain law, or can the problem be attributed a lack of adequate space on the roadways for drivers to install chains?State Rep. Dan Gibbs, D-Silverthorne, thinks the former is at the root of the issue.He plans to introduce a bill in the state House on Thursday that would increase the current fine for noncompliance with the existing 10-year-old chain law, and tack on points to a driver’s license for the offense.Right now, chain law citations cost $116.16 and result in zero points on the license of a commercial vehicle driver who ignores the law. That fine can be increased to $500 if an unchained vehicle results in a blocked highway.Gibbs would like to see that penalty stiffened to $500 across the board, with the addition of four license points if a driver’s lack in obeying the law causes the road to be blocked.
“In my opinion if you have minimal penalties for people who don’t comply with the laws, folks say, ‘That’s just the cost of doing business,'” Gibbs said.He said he’s heard loud and clear from elected officials and his constituents that they would like to see the current chain law revisited.But, Greg Fulton, the president of the Colorado Motor Carriers Association, which represents the state’s truckers, says Gibbs’ bill is “putting the cart before the horse.””I think what we feel needs to happen before we look at additional penalties is that we need to create enough spaces and locations for the chain-up areas – we’re short on that,” Fulton said.According to Jeff Kullman, Region 1 director for the Colorado Department of Transportation, stranded big rigs have forced the closure of 13 individual lanes of traffic on I-70 between Denver and Vail since the start of the 2006/2007 snow season. During that same timeframe, a portion of the interstate has been entirely shut down on 15 separate occasions due to chainless trucks, he added.CDOT has never examined the economic impacts of such closures, but Kullman cited an analysis completed in California for Interstate 80 over Donner Pass – a 7,085-foot pass connecting the Sacramento and San Francisco metro areas to Sierra Nevada communities like Truckee. Both Donner Pass and the Eisenhower Tunnel see about 30,000 vehicles a day, he said.That study showed that when Donner Pass closes, the effect on the economy equates to $1 million an hour, Kullman said.”That’s a real high number to us, but that’s what one state has used to show what the costs of a closure is,” Kullman said.Summit County Commissioner Thomas Davidson said he doesn’t need to see any studies to realize that the existing penalty for disobeying the chain law doesn’t have enough teeth to be effective.”Way back when, when I worked at Keystone Transportation, we had to chain up the buses and I know just how miserable that job is. But I’ll tell you right now if it’s only a $125 fine and no points against a license, it doesn’t surprise me that I see tractor trailers out there on the highway blocking traffic as a result of not chaining up,” Davidson said.
Davidson and his fellow county commissioners drafted a letter earlier this month to Gibbs and state Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald, D-Coal Creek Canyon, both of whom represent Summit County, asking them to look at potential ways to beef up the penalties. Even if a long-term solution for I-70 congestion was already decided on and the billions of dollars needed for that fix were available, “we’re stuck with that highway how it is for the next 10 to 15 years and we have to figure out ways to make the highway we’ve got function better for us,” Davidson said.From Fulton’s perspective, the issue goes beyond the scope of truck drivers simply choosing not to follow the law.In his opinion, highway infrastructure hasn’t kept up with the growth in the trucking industry. Between Denver and Grand Junction, there’s a shortage of “a couple hundred” truck parking spaces every night, he said. It’s often tough for a driver who wants to wait out a storm to find a place to do so particularly when the rest area parking lots haven’t been plowed.According to CDOT, on the Eisenhower Tunnel approaches, there are six eastbound chain-up stations and four westbound stations.Also, safety is always a huge concern, compounded even further by the Jan. 7 death of a Wal-Mart driver who was struck and killed by an out-of-control SUV as he took the chains off his truck at a designated chain station in Georgetown. Fulton thinks some sort of protective barrier should be considered at chain-up stations to shield vulnerable drivers from traffic while they take on and off their chains. “In a lot of ways you need to look at a chain-up area almost like you look at a mini work zone,” Fulton said.Fulton said the association wants to see a solution to the chain problem just as badly as anyone because the trucking industry is dramatically impacted when the interstate closes.One idea could be setting up inspection points, which have been successful on California’s Donner Pass, Fulton said. That way truckers who aren’t carrying chains would be turned around before they could get too close to the tunnel and have no where to go but up.
That isn’t as simple as it might sound, CDOT’s Kullman said. Donner Pass only has one steep ascent and descent, while I-70 contains three – Floyd Hill, Eisenhower Tunnel and Vail Pass – so there would likely be a need for numerous inspection areas. Also, for inspection points to work, there must be enough space to stack up the trucks while they wait to be checked out so other traffic isn’t stopped.”It’s a little complicated so we haven’t addressed it yet, to be honest, but it’s out there,” Kullman said.CDOT is working with the Colorado Motor Carriers Association on other longer term fixes, like surveying potential locations for additional chain-up areas, Kullman said.If Gibbs’ bill passes into law, a stiffer penalty would be just one element to a much larger issue that CDOT would continue to tackle with the help of the Motor Carriers Association, Kullman said.Gibbs said he also plans to continue ongoing discussions with CDOT, Colorado State Patrol and the Motor Carriers on long-term solutions.Gibbs’ bill has already garnered support from the Summit County Chamber of Commerce and the Colorado Association of Ski Towns.Nicole Formosa can be reached at (970) 668-4629, or at email@example.com.
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