I-80 Truckers’ revolt | SierraSun.com

I-80 Truckers’ revolt

Melissa Vinitsky, Sun News Service
Photo by Doug Slater, Sun news serviceA truck near Verdi on I-80.
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Call it “Mutiny on I-80.”

Last month during peak holiday time, two groups of westbound truckers challenged Caltrans’ authority to hold them in Nevada for chain control.

One group of truckers ran the controls, while the other created a roadblock that caused traffic back up all the way to downtown Reno.

The truckers’ rebellion poses a serious safety and traffic problem for Caltrans, other drivers, and the town of Truckee, which bears the brunt of Interstate 80 congestion. The crux of the matter for Caltrans is that any solution depends on cooperation from independent truckers and Nevada agencies, none of which Caltrans has any pull over.

TRUCKER UPRISING

In the early afternoon of Dec. 29, with heavy holiday traffic on I-80 and chain control imminent due to snowy conditions, Caltrans officials decided to hold westbound trucks near Boomtown in Nevada. In a cooperative agreement with the Nevada Department of Transportation, Caltrans is allowed to set up chain control on the Nevada side of I-80 in order to give vehicles a place to turn around.

“We run chain controls in Nevada because if we let people pass and they get in the canyon, they can’t turn around,” said Caltrans spokesman Mark Dinger. “At least in Boomtown, they have a place to pull over and stay awhile.”

A group of independent truckers, however, saw things differently.

According to Stan Richins, Caltrans regional manager for the Sutter/Sierra area, five truckers arguing that Caltrans did not have the right to hold them in Nevada and stop interstate commerce ran the closure point at state line.

The agency notified the California Highway Patrol, who waited for the rigs at the Donner Pass Inspection Facility. Although the truckers pulled into the scales voluntarily, one driver refused to cooperate with a female officer who asked to see his license and log book. She had to use pepper spray to restrain him after he assaulted her, said CHP Officer Pete Christoffersen. The trucker was arrested on charges of resisting arrest, failure to stop for inspection and failure to obey a lawful order by a peace officer.

“The vast majority of truckers are extremely cooperative, especially the long-haulers,” said Christoffersen. “But there are a few bad apples in any large group.”

For Caltrans, there were more than just a few bad apples on the road that day. In an industry where news can spread like wildfire, 17 other trucks claiming the same grievance staged their own rebellion by pulling into both lanes near Gold Ranch to create a barricade. Caltrans called for assistance from the CHP and Nevada Highway Patrol, but neither was able to respond, according to Richins. CHP was overextended because of the high number of weather-related accidents, and the NHP couldn’t get through since traffic was back-upped all the way to Keystone in Reno.

After one hour, Caltrans realized it was fighting a losing battle.

“We had no other recourse. We couldn’t get help to us,” said Richins. “We realized we no longer had control of traffic and the trucks.”

Richins ordered the Caltrans workers to lift the hold. But before doing so, Caltrans coated the road with more sand and salt to make it as safe as possible for the trucks to travel. Richins said the agency normally doesn’t like to take such aggressive measures, but it was left with no choice that day.

“It was a situation we don’t like to be forced into,” he said. “We try to minimize the use of materials. We have to consider environmental concerns.”

Only one of the 17 truckers was stopped. He was cited and towed for not carrying the proper chains.

TRUCKEE IMPACTED

The ending of an hour-long traffic jam meant bad news for Truckee. In similar situations, Caltrans usually releases traffic in phases to allow the town to slowly absorb the cars. Because Caltrans didn’t do so on that day, Truckee experienced what one observer called the worst weekday traffic she had ever seen. It took an hour and a half to drive from Estates Drive to downtown Truckee, which normally takes 15 minutes.

“To the city of Truckee, this is a life and death situation,” said Richins, referring to the difficulty emergency vehicles have in making their way through stalled traffic.

DIFFICULTY WITH INDEPENDENT TRUCKERS

The truckers causing the problems for Caltrans were all independent truckers, which Richins estimates makes up about 50 percent of the rigs on I-80. Unlike company truckers, independent drivers are small business owners who don’t get compensated for waiting in traffic or a delayed shipment.

“If they’re not moving, they’re not making money,” said Larry Daniel, president of Missouri-based America’s Independent Truckers’ Association. “Some put the act of earning money over safety.”

Caltrans meets with the California Trucking Association, which represents small to medium size fleets, once a year to discuss policies. Independent truckers, however, tend to be lone wolves with no formal representation. Organizations like AITA and the National Association of Independent Truckers exist mainly to provide services and help drivers earn more money, not to offer any kind of oversight or lobby on their behalf.

CALTRANS’ DILEMMA

The trucker mutiny highlights Caltrans’ predicament with operating out of state, albeit six miles from the border. As an agency with no enforcement authority, Caltrans relies on the CHP to compel drivers to obey its regulations in California. But in Nevada, the agency has to depend on a highway patrol that is short-handed and whose first priority is to local traffic issues. Without a strong arm nearby, Caltrans is powerless to stop chain control violations.

“Other than informing drivers, stopping at controls is their prerogative,” said Richins. “Unless we have enforcement right there with us, we will continually have problems.”

Caltrans says that it’s not uncommon for cars to ignore chain control policies. However, when trucks blow by the controls, it creates a potentially dangerous situation for everyone on the road. In snow and heavy traffic, rigs cannot start and stop while going up Donner Summit. It only takes one stuck or jack-knifed rig to lead to a major traffic jam or cause a serious accident. In a domino effect, this can prevent emergency vehicles and Caltrans snow plows and truck pushers from reaching the scene.

“If a truck spins out, we are dead in the water,” said CHP Officer Kirk Bromell.

The fate of Caltrans chain control in Nevada and I-80 safety depends on the ability of the agency to work out an arrangement with NDOT and NHP. Until that happens, as Richins said, “we could be in serious trouble.”