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More cops? Better design? Candidates differ on pass
By Kevin Huelsmann, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Date: October 17, 2012
Republican House candidate Marti Halverson said she would support a seasonal, possibly temporary, ban on large trucks on Teton Pass.
Her opponent, independent candidate Bill Winney, didn’t rule out a ban but was much more hesitant to support the idea, saying such a restriction could have larger effects on businesses in the area.
The two candidates for House District 22, didn’t end up too far apart in their answers about how to improve safety on the pass. They did, however, differ greatly in how they arrived at their positions.
Halverson said state highway officials’ priorities in western Wyoming are out of whack. They easily could find money to increase patrols to head off overweight trucks and install safety measures, such as new runaway truck ramps, sooner than planned.
Winney said state transportation officials should review the highway’s design to see if there are ways to improve the safety of the road.
Many of the other options mentioned — more patrolmen, higher fines and stricter rules — don’t necessarily get at the heart of the problem and could hurt businesses that safely cross the pass everyday, he said.
The discussion comes two weeks after a 36-year-old man from Oregon lost control of the truck — it weighed more than 85,000 pounds — he was driving over the pass and crashed on the edge of Wilson. He died in the accident.
In response to the fatal accident, state transportation officials said last week that they’re considering installing a scale on the west side of Teton Pass that would be able to automatically weigh trucks. They’re also looking through statistics to determine the nature of accidents and are considering increasing overweight fines.
The existing weight restriction is 60,000 pounds. Trailer traffic is banned from the pass between November and April.
Halverson, who lives in Etna, said she would support a ban on large trucks on Teton Pass during the winter, beyond the existing prohibition on trailers. The ban could be temporary, at least until new truck arrester ramps are installed, she said.
“It’s a heck of a road,” Halverson said. “There are safer ways to get through there.”
State highway officials could find money within their budget to speed up the construction of new runaway truck ramps and add patrolmen, she said.
“It’s a matter of priorities,” she said. “I don’t think it’s a matter of funding. There’s a lot of money there that can be diverted to higher priorities.”
More important than new fines or restrictions is building a police presence, Halverson said. Highway patrolmen just need to stop enough trucks to get the word out.
“It just needs to go through the trucking community that ‘Oh my gosh, they’re really cracking down,’” Halverson said.
Winney said state officials’ first consideration should be whether there are design deficiencies in the road. They should look at the strength of the pavement, and even required setbacks from the road as it enters Wilson.
“Did the road need to be fixed, in terms of safety, if the guy had been within the weight limits?” Winney said.
Increasing fines, imposing stricter restrictions and boosting patrol on the pass are easy things to suggest, but they cost and could have broader consequences, Winney said. They also don’t address the underlying problem, that some drivers are ignoring restrictions.
“Those are easy things to say but they require money,” he said of increased patrols. “In a state that’s considering reductions, do you want to add costs?”
Lowering the weight limit or imposing a ban on large trucks is something Winney would consider, but he said there are bigger questions raised by those proposals. Further restricting who can travel over the pass could hurt businesses, he said.
“Lowering the weigh limit affects people,” he said. “It affects business.”
The bigger problem, Winney said, are companies that ignore the rules and send drivers with overweight trucks.
“A business that overloads a truck by 30,000 pounds knows what they’re doing,” he said.
For Winney, the issue is about finding the right mix of enforcement. Too much could create a “police state,” while too little might be too far to the other end of the spectrum, he said.
“Where’s the balance?” he asked. “Legislators and the Legislature have to find that.”
Winney said he would consider adding money to WYDOT’s budget to allow the truck ramps to be installed sooner than 2016 or 2017 — the current schedule. Such a proposal needs to be reviewed against other pending projects.
Those ramps are meant to address mechanical failures, not necessarily overweight trucks, Winney said.
“Though no fault or neglect of anyone, you still might have a trailer, a 60,000-pound runaway truck heading toward Wilson,” he said. “That’s not good.”