The General Assembly narrowly approved a compromise measure early Thursday that would allow heavier trucks on Georgia highways for two years.
State law limits trucks to 80,000 pounds, though those carrying certain products can weigh up to 84,000 pounds. House Bill 189 would allow trucks carrying agricultural and forestry products to weigh up to 88,000 pounds.
It was one of the most hotly contested issues of the legislative session — and it only got more heated before a compromise was reached late Wednesday.
The ag and timber industries say higher weights would allow them to ship their goods more efficiently, saving money at a time of high inflation. Traffic safety advocates, the Georgia Department of Transportation and local governments say heavier trucks would mean more traffic fatalities and cost taxpayers billions of dollars more for road maintenance.
The House and Senate approved markedly different versions of the bill in recent days. The House narrowly approved a version that would have allowed trucks carrying a wider variety of products to weigh up to 88,000 pounds.
The Senate version would have restricted the higher weights to ag and timber products. It also would have limited the higher weights to trucks traveling within 75 miles of their origin. It would have sunset the higher weights in July 2024, giving lawmakers time to develop a long-term compromise on truck weights and to find ways to pay for billions of dollars in road and rail improvements GDOT says are needed to accommodate a boom in freight traveling across Georgia.
The Senate version also would have allowed local police to enforce truck weight limits — something only the state Department of Public Safety can do now.
That last provision sparked intense debate among lawmakers Wednesday evening in a conference committee designated to reach a compromise. Industry supporters argued against allowing local police to enforce weight limits.
“My folks back home can’t get deputies enough to respond to domestic violence calls or run radar,” said Rep. James Burchette, R-Waycross. “It’s not practical to say they’re going to buy scales and get training and put them on the road.”
Senate Majority Leader Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, and Sen. Greg Dolezal, R-Cumming, insisted that local police be allowed to enforce weight limits as part of a deal. They said the state doesn’t have enough officers to adequately enforce maximum truck weights.
“What I’m really hearing is, ‘we’re running our trucks overweight and we just don’t want anybody to know it,’ ” Dolezal said.
In the end, the committee reached a compromise. The higher weight for ag and timber trucks would expire in two years instead of one. The provision allowing local police to enforce the law also would expire in two years. And they would be limited to enforcing weight limits on local roads — not on state highways or interstates.
Trucks carrying higher weights would be allowed to travel up to 150 miles from their origin, instead of 75. And the committee lowered the proposed fine for the worst-offending trucks.
At midnight, the measure cleared the House by a vote of 95-75. At 12:09 a.m., it passed the Senate by a vote of 37-16.
But the issue isn’t likely to go away. Lawmakers hope to begin discussions on how to pay for GDOT’s freight funding plan soon. Those negotiations would likely determine what happens to truck weights in the future.
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Credit: Ben Hendren for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution