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The Trouble With Trucking

Heavy truck traffic, some of it related to the wind industry, has increased sharply across the state in recent years, and it's taken a heavy toll on rural roadways. To its chagrin, the Texas Department of Transportation has little prospect of recouping repair costs.

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"Now you can see how bad this is," says Stacey Young, a Lubbock-based pavement expert at the Texas Department of TransportationShe is driving along Farm to Market Road 97 in Floyd County, which has been so heavily repaired that one lane is a gray, black and sandy-colored patchwork. The cause: convoys of trucks lugging materials to a nearby wind farm that was built several years ago. 

Heavy truck traffic, some of it related to the energy industry, has increased sharply across the state in recent years, and it's taken a heavy toll on rural roadways. The number of super-heavy vehicle permits — granted by TxDOT to trucks over 254,300 pounds — rose from 208 in fiscal year 2005 to 1,525 in fiscal year 2009, due to both increased economic activity and improved processes for identifying heavy loads. In February, a record 1.7 million pound load moved through Texas, a generator bound for a coal plant in Riesel from the Port of Houston.

To TxDOT's chagrin, trucking companies and the industries they serve rarely shoulder the cost of fixing the damage, which can run in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for a single state road.

"We've seen a lot of our roadways have base [problems], edges drop off, rutting, bridge hits, shoulder damage," says Jodi Hodges, a public information officer in TxDOT's Fort Worth district, which has seen heavy roadway damage from trucks associated with natural gas drilling in the Barnett Shale. In 2007, when natural gas prices were high and drilling was booming, the agency spent more than $23 million in road rehabilitation funds in Johnson County alone — more than one-third of the available funds — plus an additional $11 million from other sources.

Trucking advocates point out that even if they do not cover the costs of damage to state roads, they sometimes help pay for the upkeep of city and county roads. In addition, the heaviest loads move on trucks with extra axles, to distribute the weight. "It is not a question of damage being done to roads because of weight," says John Esparza, president and chief executive of the Texas Motor Transportation Association. "It is about the dispersement of weight [and having] the proper vehicle."

TxDOT officials also say the sheer number of trucks, even if they are not super-heavy loads, makes an impact.

In West Texas, officials have noticed increased damage to the roadways over the past five years as the wind industry has flourished. (Texas now has the most wind turbines in the country by far.) In the Abilene-Sweetwater area — the heart of the wind rush — repairing mostly wind-related damage to FM-89 in Taylor County will cost TxDOT more than $179,000 this fiscal year.

Young says that often the most damage is caused not by the wind turbines themselves but by other materials, such as the concrete used to build the foundation of the turbine. Consider the case of FM-97, the heavily patched road leading up to a wind farm called Whirlwind: The company that owns the farm, RES Americas, built a spur road leading to the farm site, and hauling an estimated 50,000 tons of base material to build that spur took a toll on the larger road, which was constructed long before such farms were in the picture. Indeed, the damage to FM-97 is almost entirely in the eastbound lane leading to the farm; the other lane — traveled by the trucks after they dumped their loads — is nearly unscathed.

Compared to the previous year, truck traffic along FM-97 quadrupled, to 122 trucks a day, when the Whirlwind wind farm was built, according to TxDOT. Few other vehicles drive along the road.

Young says RES Americas was helpful in communicating the truck movements. But she argues that wind companies should help pay for the damage they cause on state roads. Right now, super-heavy loads pay a maximum permit fee of $970 for a one-way trip in Texas, regardless of the number of miles traveled. For trucks going long distances, that works out to less than neighboring Louisiana, where loads just shy of 254,000 pounds are charged $1,420 if they drive over 200 miles. The Texas fees are not commensurate, TxDOT officials say, with the damage the big loads cause to roadways. To raise Texas' permit fees to adequate levels would require legislation, Young says. "Somehow I don't think that's going to happen," she says.

Some wind turbine parts move by rail these days, but many still move by truck. Greg Wortham, executive director of the Texas Wind Energy Clearinghouse, dismisses the concerns about roadway damage, noting the large number of jobs created by the wind industry. He likens the situation to that of transmission lines, whose costs are spread to ratepayers across the state. "Our society needs certain things. People have got to get over this," he says. If taxpayers want economic activity, then "it's reasonable to expect damage from moving heavy objects, whether [they are] military tanks or wind turbine parts or ethanol facilities or nuclear reactor parts or oil drilling rigs."

Andrew Fowler, executive vice president of construction for RES Americas, operator of the wind farm off FM-97, said in a statement:"RES Americas is attentive to the alteration and erosion of roads caused by an increase in heavy truck loads in the counties where we construct. RES Americas works with these counties to mitigate effects and address concerns that exist."

But many TxDOT officials complain that truckers often try to avoid paying their permit fees, such as they are. Trucks over 80,000 pounds — the weight at which all trucks, regardless of how many axles they have, need an "overweight permit" — sometimes try to avoid weigh stations by traveling at night, according to Hodges. In some parts of the Fort Worth district, the sheriff's department and the Department of Public Safety have provided additional enforcement manpower, and "about 50 percent of the trucks they pull over are overweight," she says.

The roadway impacts of both the wind industry and the gas industry ebb and flow with the industries' fortunes, transportation officials say. Right now, owing partly to the insufficient number of transmission lines out of West Texas, the wind boom has slowed somewhat. The gas drilling business, too, is down from its height a few years ago, as natural gas prices have fallen sharply.

If prices go back up, Hodges says, the drilling frenzy — and associated damage to roadways — will resume.

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