Taking transportation shortcuts this harvest season is risking the cost of high-dollar legal penalties and a loss of insurance, according to the Mississippi Department of Transportation’s director of enforcement.

Willie Huff, who spoke at a July 24 joint meeting of Delta Council’s Ginning and Cotton Quality Improvement Committee and the Southern Cotton Ginners Association, is giving farmers fair warning. “We know you don’t want to be stopped. We also know it is our job to make sure you are legal,” he says.

Among the violations Mississippi Department of Transportation will be patrolling the highways for are improper apportion tags, failure to have proper insurance, running highway vehicles with farm fuel, and illegally driving on low-weight roads and bridges.

“If we catch truck drivers lacking a commercial driver’s license or driving without proper insurance, we are going to put them on the side of that road until they get right. That’s going to impact delivering what they’ve got loaded on that truck, and they aren’t going to be picking up another load,” said Huff.

Being stopped by DOT officials making random weight checks also can slow your trip from the field to the gin or the grain elevator.

Huff suggests putting your farm name or your company name on each truck you operate during harvest season. “If you have a good record, and that officer has stopped you three times, and you haven’t been overweight each time, then the next time he sees you with that name on the truck, he’s probably not going to stop you,” he said. “To me, that’s a pretty easy way to help us help you not to be stopped.”

Traveling over bridges

According to the Mississippi Department of Transportation, there are hundreds of low-weight posted bridges in the state, and many of them are located in the agriculturally-rich Delta. The agency’s website, www.gomdot.com, includes a map, a list of posted bridges, the locations of those low-weight bridges, and the weight limit for each posted bridge.

“No permit, harvest or otherwise, allows you to go across the posted bridge at any weight higher than is on that posted bridge,” Huff said. “It doesn’t mean that bridge is going to fall in today, but it means you can’t carry a legal load across it.”

For comparison purposes, a loaded school bus weighs 27,000 pounds, a two-axle bob truck is going to weigh about 13 tons, and a long 42-foot truck is going weigh about 21 tons.

“If you go across that posted bridge and you weigh more than that bridge is posted for, then you just bought that bridge. And, the last one we installed cost $630,000,” Huff said. “I don’t know what your insurance limit is, but after you reach that limit, the insurance company writes you that little letter that says, ‘We sure enjoyed your business of the last 10 years, but you are gone today.’ And the next insurance company you contact is going to say, ‘Well, I don’t think so.’”

According to Huff, the Department of Transportation is operating on a limited budget, and built into that budget is regular maintenance on the state’s highways and bridges. Regular maintenance does not include the cost of replacing all of the state’s 300 to 400 low-weight bridges. It costs $300,000 to $400,000 to replace a small bridge, and requires an 18-month construction window.

The cost of new bridge construction is even higher, Huff says, because of the additional costs of regulations associated with the Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency.

“Maintaining low-weight bridges is a matter of survival,” said Huff. “If you otherwise can’t get to your place without a 25-mile detour, we understand that. But, if that bridge goes down, you’re going to have everybody with a 25-mile detour. School buses, ambulances, the fire department, and all of the folks that you depend on when you dial 911 will have that 24-mile detour just because you wanted to route agricultural trucks across a posted bridge.”

Fuel restrictions

According to Huff, the Department of Transportation’s enforcement officers are actively inspecting trucks to catch fuel tax law violators running the lesser-taxed farm fuel in highway vehicles.

“Every year, we catch somebody using non-highway fuel,” said Huff. “Not only will you be facing a $2,000 fine, but the IRS is coming to look for you, and they can fine you for the size of the tank the dyed fuel was in. If it’s a 100-gallon tank, but you’ve only got 10 gallons in it, they are still going to fine you for the 100 gallons the tank holds. They can go to your place where your nurse tank is, look at that, and fine you for what that holds. The best thing to do, is don’t run farm fuel on the highway.”

“You can put a pint of dyed fuel in a 50-gallon tank and we are going to be able to tell it. We’ve got tests that we can run to make sure you are in compliance. Be very careful where you drive with dyed fuel,” he said.

New enforcement tools

The Mississippi Department of Transportation is currently building two sites in the Delta that will allow them to more efficiently enforce transportation laws.

The locations, on Highway 61 south of Clarksdale and on Highway 82 west of Indianola, will employ new, smart roadside technology. The technology, which employs sensors built into the pavement, records several variables including speed and axle weight. It also is equipped with cameras that will photograph license plates and DOT numbers.

“We will use that information to check various databases to be sure the truck photographed has not been reported as stolen, the tag number is current, and the DOT number is current. It’s going to make us more efficient,” Huff said.

“I can promise you this, out of 1,000 trucks going over one of these smart sensors today, 400 of them are overweight,” he added.