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North Dakota pilot program for extra-long trucks stalls, struggles to find industry partners

The Department of Transportation was considering canceling a study into the multi-trailer truck platoons sometimes called "road trains" after struggling to attract trucking industry participants.

Road Train Australia 2
A three-trailer road train rolls through western Australia.
Special to The Forum
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BISMARCK – North Dakota’s study into the effects of the extra-long semi-trailer trucks sometimes called “road trains” on state roads has stalled as the state struggles to attract trucking industry partners.

But while the North Dakota Department of Transportation was considering canceling its limited scope pilot program on the use of multi-trailer truck platoons, representatives from the department said they opted to keep pursuing it after a state senator informed them that he knows of multiple trucking outfits interested in participating.

The DOT study, which is meant to collect data ahead of the Legislature’s 2023 session, was authorized by lawmakers last year under Senate Bill 2026 and would allow participating vehicles to exceed a federal cargo carrying limit of 105 feet on designated roads. A more sweeping version of the legislation was scrapped during last year's legislative session over concerns that it didn’t allow lawmakers much control over what they were allowing on the state’s roads.

Wayde Swenson, head of the Departments of Transportation’s office of operations, said the department put notices about the program in the state’s major newspapers, advertised it through trucking industry interest groups and reached out to permitted drivers through the Highway Patrol, but didn’t get any takers.

Still, Swenson said that the department decided to keep the study open after Sen. Larry Luick, R-Fairmount, who has spearheaded an effort to bring road trains to North Dakota for years, said he knew of multiple companies and trucking outfits interested in participating, offering to help get them involved.

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Both Swenson and Luick said that some companies had initially expressed interest in the program but backed out after realizing that it would not allow them to bring the multi-trailer trucks onto certain major roadways, including interstate highways I-29 and I-94.

That remains a barrier for some, Luick said, but since learning that DOT might kill the study, the senator said he has gotten in touch with close to 20 trucking outfits "that absolutely want in." He said he is hoping to help connect possible partners with the state during a meeting of the Legislature's interim Agriculture and Transportation Committee meeting on Feb. 15.

Luick said that not every trucking outfit is "going to jump on board and say this is the cat’s meow, because some companies don’t need it," but he added that it remains attractive to companies that haul a lot of freight.

The idea of authorizing longer semi-trailer trucks in North Dakota drew some pushback during last year's legislative session from opponents who said the bigger trucks damage roads and bridges and put other drivers at risk.

Lawmakers set an Aug. 1 deadline for DOT to complete its report on the feasibility of opening up North Dakota roads to the truck platoons, a deadline Swenson said the department may struggle to meet if they can't get the study underway soon. If partners do emerge, Swenson said the department could also request an extension from Legislative Management.

Swenson said he isn’t surprised that it has been challenging to get partners on board with the study, since the exclusion of certain major roads from the program only makes it useful to industry under specific circumstances.

Accessing interstate highways has been a key aim for Luick and road train proponents, since those roadways comprise some of the most important shipping routes in the region and allow for the vehicles to move easily between North Dakota and neighboring states. Luick has sought support from the state’s Congressional delegation to enact a region-wide pilot program that would open up interstate roads by looping in South Dakota and Minnesota.

Road trains aren't legal in many parts of the world. Backers of the idea in North Dakota have said they took inspiration from the Australian Outback , where an extreme version of the truck platoons operate on mining roads, but Luick said more limited trailer combinations are already running in neighboring South Dakota and in Canada.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at awillis@forumcomm.com.

Related Topics: NORTH DAKOTATRANSPORTATION
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