Monday, May 24, 2004

Truckers nudged to the right

Trucks to be restricted on I-35

State panel votes to make left lane off-limits to big rigs rolling through Central Texas

May 28, 2004

Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2004

The five-member Texas Transportation Commission nudged truckers to the right Thursday, voting unanimously to ban trucks from the left lane on Interstate 35 through the heart of Central Texas.

Trucks with three or more axles will be allowed into that lane by the median only for brief intervals, long enough to pass another car or truck, from 1.3 miles south of the Bell County line to San Marcos' southern city limit, about a half-mile north of the Comal County line. The ban also applies to truck tractors, which have just two axles, even when those vehicles are not towing a trailer.

However, the restriction won't begin until the state spends an estimated $900,000 to put up signs in the three affected counties. Transportation Department officials say the signs will go up first in Williamson County, allowing the ban to kick in by October there. They expect to have everything in place in Travis and Hays counties by January at the latest.

The state believes the restriction, already in place on six other Texas highway segments, will speed traffic flow in the left lane because trucks often involuntarily decelerate on hills. And they say the change could be safer as well. Statistics from Interstate 10 in Houston showed a 68 percent drop in traffic wrecks after truckers were shunted out of the left lane.

The Texas Motor Transportation Association, which represents truckers, doesn't buy either assertion. They say that when it really matters, during peak traffic periods, cars and trucks are already operating at reduced speeds and the truck deceleration effect is negligible. And truckers argue that a blanket police presence during the Houston study was responsible for the drop in crashes, not the truck ban.

The association submitted comments to the state opposing the I-35 restriction. The trade group suggested that making the ban apply 24 hours a day, seven days a week is overkill given the light-to-nonexistent traffic at certain hours of the day.

"Law enforcement agencies locally say they prefer to do it 24-7," Carlos Lopez, the Transportation Department's director of traffic operations, said when asked about that by transportation commissioners Thursday. Lopez said the truck restriction on I-10 applied from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Lopez said Central Texas law enforcement has committed to strict enforcement of the ban. And he said that the agency will do a study in about a year to determine whether the restrictions are helping traffic flow and preventing wrecks.

State law since 1997 has allowed cities and counties to impose such restrictions on expressways with at least three lanes in each direction. In 2003, lawmakers extended that authority to the Transportation Department and, thus, the Transportation Commission.

In Central Austin, where the four lanes northbound and southbound split into two lanes at ground level and two elevated lanes, trucks will be barred from driving only in the median lanes of the lower level.

Under state law, violating the lane restriction carries a maximum fine of $200.; 445-3698

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