Spokane Journal of Business

Truckers give Referendum 51 mixed reviews

Measure aims to reduce traffic, but would raise industry’s costs

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Referendum 51, the Washington state transportation-improvement package that will be on the November ballot, is getting a mixed review from the Spokane-area trucking industry.


The referendum would impact the trucking industry by increasing gross weight fees by 30 percent for commercial trucks weighing more than 10,000 pounds, by raising the state gas tax 9 cents a gallon, and by increasing the sales tax on new and used vehicles by 1 percentage point.


Its gonna be a tough row to hoe, if the measure passes, says Mike Mitchell, operations manager for Mercer Trucking Co., of Spokane.


R-51 would raise an estimated $7.7 billion for state roads, including about $3.2 billion from increased taxes and fees and more than $4.5 billion from bond sales. That money would be earmarked for road projects to ease congestion and improve safety in areas the state Department of Transportation has found to be especially congested or dangerous.


We definitely need the better roads, Mitchell says, but he also says that trucking companies cant afford to absorb the increased costs, and that their customers will balk if the costs are passed along to them.


In Eastern Washington, R-51 money would pay for several road-improvement projects, including:


Widening Interstate 90 in the Spokane Valley between the Argonne Road and Sullivan Road interchanges.


Early construction of Spokanes long-awaited north-south freeway.


Adding truck-climbing lanes to I-90 where it passes through the Columbia Basin.


Widening a portion of U.S. Highway 12 between Tri-Cities and Walla Walla.


The Washington Trucking Association, or WTA, officially supports R-51, believing that it will benefit the industry by improving its ability to move products throughout the state. Michele Maher, who owns Freight Management Resources, a Spokane transportation consulting company, and also sits on the state Transportation Commission, says legislators worked with the WTA on drafting the referendum to ensure that R-51 had the groups support.


Support among local trucking companies, however, is less certain.


Its a mixed bag, quite frankly, Maher says. The trucking industry already raises its prices about 7 percent a year to cover a variety of increasing costs, such as insurance and security, and asking customers to take on even steeper hikes is difficult, she says.


Customers dont see how they can absorb another price increase from a trucking company, she says.


Maher says less-congested roadways could enable truckers to move more loads, which translates into more money. She believes that benefit, coupled with passing some of the increased costs on to customers, would help lessen R-51s impact on trucking companies.


Some trucking companies, however, say the referendum would make the tough current economy even tougher for them.


Jim Williams, CEO of Trans-System Inc., one of Spokane largest trucking companies, says he reluctantly supports R-51 even though it would cost his West Plains company nearly $250,000 a year in increased gas taxes and gross weight fees.


I almost think you have to support it, because transportation is so important for economic growth, he says. Williams believes Spokanes long-awaited north-south freeway is imperative, as is easing congestion and improving traffic flow in high-accident areas. While he thinks improvements to the transportation infrastructure would benefit the trucking industry, the industry is being asked to carry an unreasonably heavy share of the financial burden, he contends.


These things need to be done, he says, adding that he doesnt ever like to see taxes and fees go up. Doing nothing, I dont think thats the answer, either.


Safety benefit


Maher says a big benefit of R-51 is increased safety. Currently, long-haul truckers, who generally are paid by the mile, are mandated to rest after driving for a certain number of hours, she says. If congestion in the state were eased, Maher says, drivers could cover more miles in the same amount of time and would have less incentive to violate safety regulations by driving for unsafe periods of time, something she says is a persistent problem.


Mitchell says the planned R-51 improvements would improve safety for drivers, and might make for faster trips from Spokane to Seattle, but he doesnt see a substantial monetary gain for trucking companies.

  • Adrienne DellwoC.

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