Weigh station more than just another roadside attraction

Posted: Sunday, June 03, 2001

Anyone who drives the Sterling Highway across the Kenai Peninsula has seen the signs in Sterling for the state's weigh station. For car drivers, it may seem little more than a minor landmark or a reason to change lanes.

But for those who earn a living moving freight in Southcentral Alaska, the weigh station can be a valuable ally or a strict taskmaster. And its staff is working for the safety of all of us, whether we know it or not.

On the Friday before Memorial Day weekend, Commercial Vehicle Enforcement Officer Jeff Mahan was manning the station alone. His partner, Robert White, had the day off.

The two state employees check commercial vehicles -- the semi trucks, flatbeds, oversized boat trailers and others -- that run the Sterling Highway, monitoring their weight, permits and condition.

One truck pulling onto the scales had a bad tire on one of its six axles. Gazing out the big window of the small station, Mahan picked up the radio mike and mentioned the tire to the driver. The trucker replied he had a new one waiting for him in Soldotna.

Mahan waved him on.

 

Jeff Mahan waves to a truck driver as he pulls away from the weigh scales in Sterling last week. Mahan is one of two commercial vehicle enforcement officers assigned to the Sterling building.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

The man came back on the radio, asking if George had been through.

Mahan said George went by about 45 minutes ago.

 

An truck passes the Sterling Weigh Scales building in the lane reserved for empty vehicles.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"I thought maybe I'd beat him today," the driver said.

"You'll have to get up early to do that," Mahan responded.

 

An truck passes the Sterling Weigh Scales building in the lane reserved for empty vehicles.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

About 11 a.m. a flurry of double trailers came through. They were racing the clock, because they needed to be off the road by noon for a holiday traffic closure.

Loads of loads

Sterling can be quiet. Or not.

One day when White was on duty alone, a van pulled onto the scale, but its weight kept fluctuating even though the rig was stopped. The van kept jiggling because its load was a fidgeting elephant on the way to a carnival.

 

A digital display records the weight of a vehicle parked on the scales.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

The oddest of all was a semi full of marijuana the Alaska State Troopers brought through.

"They had confiscated it at Hope and needed to get the weight," Mahan said.

More conventional traffic varies greatly with the seasons.

"I've had eight trucks here in eight hours in the winter," Mahan said. "In the summer, 176, that was my highest day.

 

Mahan writes a warning ticket for a young driver who was unaware that he was supposed to stop at the scales. Mahan called the driver's employer and asked that they send him back to the scales to be weighed.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"In Anchorage, they can have 200 trucks in a shift."

Even the Anchorage weigh station has a piddling work load compared to those in other states.

Mahan went to Washington last year for hazardous materials training. Weigh stations there handle 4,000 to 6,000 trucks and issue $20,000 worth of tickets per day, he said.

In the summer, the Sterling station repeatedly sees the same 100 or so trucks doing regular runs between Anchorage and the central and south peninsula. They haul just about everything. Seasonal specialties include boats, fish and dirt -- lots of summer construction dirt.

Summer also brings the recreational vehicle traffic.

"Some drive all the way from Florida, stop at this weigh station and want to know what they weigh. We're not allowed to do mobile homes," he said.

Despite prominent signs that camping is not permitted at the weigh station turnout, the crew has to boot people out about once a week during the peak of the visitor season.

"Bob came in one time, and there was a motor home parked right on the scales -- because it was a level place," Mahan said.

"He asked them to leave. They asked if they could finish breakfast first. He said fine, if they could do that behind a tow truck."

In the winter, the freight traffic dwindles to fuel and groceries.

The occasional boredom is the worst part of the job, in Mahan's opinion. When it is cold, dark and quiet he hunkers down to read the regulations over and over. If he starts to nod off, he opens the door for a while.

"In the winter we get the same eight people a lot," he said.

The weigh station guys get to know those drivers as they do inspections or go over announcements and regulations. They also know the barge schedules, the routines and whose business is booming.

One of their regulars is the Wonder Bread man. He got stranded on the peninsula for days during the big avalanches early in 2000, and hustles year-round to fill the demand for his products.

"They can't make buns fast enough for him," Mahan said.

Pulling over

to a new career

The state of Alaska has 10 weigh stations. Some only operate seasonally or part time. Others, such as Anchorage, Fairbanks and the international point of entry at Tok, are open all the time.

The Sterling Weigh Station is responsible for the entire Kenai Peninsula. It has been around so long that people have gotten hazy about its origins. On the wall hangs a 1979 picture of the scales. That original station burned down and the new facility was built in the 1980s.

The compact but tidy office offers more than a weight or inspection. Informational notices -- regulations, highway construction announcements, weight restrictions and others -- are on the walls and informational brochures on hazards are free for the taking from the window sill.

Mahan came into the weigh station job 2 1/2 years ago after years on the road himself. Five generations of his family live on the Kenai Peninsula, and he was born in Soldotna.

"I drove truck for 11 years before I got this job," he said.

An interest in vehicle safety issues grew out of that experience. He decided to switch to the weigh station job to promote safety and found other advantages, as well.

One is flexibility.

"We can work anytime we want as long as Anchorage knows and we get our hours in for the week," he said.

Another is keeping close to home and more time for family life.

"I get a schedule now," Mahan said.

Starting out, the job involved a lot of specialized training. The state sent him to intensive courses in vehicle inspection and North American vehicle standards.

"They said, 'You will be good because you used to be a truck driver.'"

A trucking system

for the 21st century

"Our safety record in Alaska is excellent," said Douglas Terhune, the chief of the vehicle inspection enforcement section for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.

"There are some unsung heroes out there. Most people don't understand where the stuff on the store shelves comes from."

The state is the envy of many others, because the relatively small number of truckers tend to be responsible. Other places have problems with transient drivers out to make quick bucks and evade "the system," he said.

Terhune praised Alaska's transit companies as conscientious and cooperative.

"There is real pressure to skimp on maintenance and drive too many hours," he said.

Marginal operators try to do that and cut costs and prices in the competitive market, he said.

"The major carriers are very supportive of what we do. It levels the playing field. They may be sharp business people, but they are members of the community.

"We are pretty proud of the carriers up here."

Terhune explained that the past few years have brought big changes to Alaska's weigh station system.

The jobs Mahan, White and their colleagues do used to be spread piecemeal over a variety of agencies. In 1997, the governor consolidated weighing, permitting and safety inspections for commercial trucking into one section at DOT. At that time, the state only had four truck inspectors, Terhune said.

"Since then we have trained all our weigh station operators," he said.

The old system was fairly archaic just a decade ago. Now all the stations are computerized and networked. Soon real-time links and wireless capability will unite the network of stations and mobile units, he said.

The No. 1 goal of the whole commercial vehicle enforcement program is safety. The secondary goal is to preserve the highway infrastructure by preventing damage, such as that caused by overweight vehicles, he said.

To reach those goals, Terhune's staff emphasize education and prevention more than writing citations. In the process, they encourage truckers to be professional as well.

Studies of road use show that just the presence of active weight station personnel deters operators from running overweight or shoddy equipment.

"We are trying to prevent accidents rather than catch people," Terhune said.

"We try not to get into a cat and mouse game."

The enforcers

Most of Mahan's shift is spent at the computer console, peering out the window at rigs as they pull in and keying in statistics on the vehicle class, license number, load type and weight. The information feeds into a growing database.

Mahan has grown so familiar with the traffic that he can identify many of the trucks at a glance.

"When I first started, I used a cheat sheet," he said.

Empty trucks pass in the outer lane. Loaded ones pause on the scales.

"State statutes say how much each axle can weigh," he said.

But every spring breakup complicates the picture. Companies run a flurry of trucking in late winter to beat the thaw. When seasonal weight limits are in effect on many major peninsula roads, the weigh station officers and truck drivers have to figure out exactly where they are going to drive to figure out how heavily the trucks can be loaded.

"This year was bad for that," he said.

Mahan cited the example of hauling propane down from the Swanson River gas fields. The limit on Swanson River Road remained 75 percent after weight restrictions on the Sterling Highway were lifted. Haulers used a tag-team maneuver, with trucks coming down from Swanson River in pairs, then off loading into a single truck for the highway part of their route.

Mahan and White allot about one to one-and-a-half hours per day for vehicle inspections. The regularity has taken care of backlogs and ensures that most peninsula trucks are kept current. Now the trucks they pick out for inspections are most likely to be unfamiliar.

"Anymore, it's if we haven't seen them for a while," Mahan said.

In the first 10 months of their current fiscal year, Mahan inspected 86 vehicles and White 89. They found more than 800 violations.

The most common problem they find is loose bolts. If people would inspect their own trucks, as they are supposed to do so under federal law, they would find nearly everything he finds, Mahan said.

Adequate inspections can be an issue in some circumstances, he said.

For example, in Anchorage, the weigh station is at the edge of town and inspectors lack room to pull over rigs in most of the city. Consequently truck lines within town rarely get checked.

"If they are in town, some of them are never seen," he said.

Vehicle inspection work includes a law enforcement component.

Mahan and White are called in for accidents involving commercial vehicles, where their role is to inspect the trucks to determine if mechanical failure was a factor.

One of the worst crashes Mahan investigated involved a semi that slid out of control on winter ice and hit a road grader.

"I've had two in one day," he said. "Then we go three or four months without having anything -- which is good."

The commercial vehicle enforcement officers are authorized to ticket violators, but do so only as a last resort, Mahan said.

"Sometimes I can go a month without having a citation. Then I can have three in one day," he said.

The inspections are not limited to the Sterling site. The officers have a van that gives them mobility. The entire peninsula is their turf, but the lack of appropriate truck turnouts makes it difficult for them to take their work on the road.

"Once in a while we'll go down to Homer and do it on top of the hill," he said.

Their biggest bust was in Moose Pass about a year ago.

"We were driving to Seward one day, and he pulled out in front of us," Mahan said.

The truck was 85,200 pounds overweight, had no permit and no chain tie-downs for its load. By the time the Sterling duo finished writing him up, the trucker owed $4,790 in fines.

"I liked that day," Mahan said.

The point is not to bust people, but to make sure the rigs on the road are safe.

Mahan said helping truck drivers is the best part of his job. And one way to do that is by enforcing the vehicle safety rules.

Sometimes some companies cut corners on maintenance and pressure drivers to use rigs they distrust. Sometimes some companies call Mahan and ask if such-and-such drivers asked him to inspect their trucks. He declines to answer.

"I can't turn in a driver," he said.

Mahan wishes he could get automobile drivers to understand more about truck safety, too. The truckers complain about cars that cut them off, drive in their blind spots or do other things that trucks, because of their limited maneuverability, cannot respond to.

"Everybody should have to ride in a semi to know what it's like before they get a license," he said.

HEAD:Road

HEAD:warriors

Anyone who drives the Sterling Highway across the Kenai Peninsula has seen the signs in Sterling for the state's weigh station. For car drivers, it may seem little more than a minor landmark or a reason to change lanes.

But for those who earn a living moving freight in Southcentral Alaska, the weigh station can be a valuable ally or a strict taskmaster. And its staff is working for the safety of all of us, whether we know it or not.

On the Friday before Memorial Day weekend, Commercial Vehicle Enforcement Officer Jeff Mahan was manning the station alone. His partner, Robert White, had the day off.

The two state employees check commercial vehicles -- the semi trucks, flatbeds, oversized boat trailers and others -- that run the Sterling Highway, monitoring their weight, permits and condition.

One truck pulling onto the scales had a bad tire on one of its six axles. Gazing out the big window of the small station, Mahan picked up the radio mike and mentioned the tire to the driver. The trucker replied he had a new one waiting for him in Soldotna.

Mahan waved him on.

The man came back on the radio, asking if George had been through.

Mahan said George went by about 45 minutes ago.

"I thought maybe I'd beat him today," the driver said.

"You'll have to get up early to do that," Mahan responded.

About 11 a.m. a flurry of double trailers came through. They were racing the clock, because they needed to be off the road by noon for a holiday traffic closure.

Loads of loads

Sterling can be quiet. Or not.

One day when White was on duty alone, a van pulled onto the scale, but its weight kept fluctuating even though the rig was stopped. The van kept jiggling because its load was a fidgeting elephant on the way to a carnival.

The oddest of all was a semi full of marijuana the Alaska State Troopers brought through.

"They had confiscated it at Hope and needed to get the weight," Mahan said.

More conventional traffic varies greatly with the seasons.

"I've had eight trucks here in eight hours in the winter," Mahan said. "In the summer, 176, that was my highest day.

"In Anchorage, they can have 200 trucks in a shift."

Even the Anchorage weigh station has a piddling work load compared to those in other states.

Mahan went to Washington last year for hazardous materials training. Weigh stations there handle 4,000 to 6,000 trucks and issue $20,000 worth of tickets per day, he said.

In the summer, the Sterling station repeatedly sees the same 100 or so trucks doing regular runs between Anchorage and the central and south peninsula. They haul just about everything. Seasonal specialties include boats, fish and dirt -- lots of summer construction dirt.

Summer also brings the recreational vehicle traffic.

"Some drive all the way from Florida, stop at this weigh station and want to know what they weigh. We're not allowed to do mobile homes," he said.

Despite prominent signs that camping is not permitted at the weigh station turnout, the crew has to boot people out about once a week during the peak of the visitor season.

"Bob came in one time, and there was a motor home parked right on the scales -- because it was a level place," Mahan said.

"He asked them to leave. They asked if they could finish breakfast first. He said fine, if they could do that behind a tow truck."

In the winter, the freight traffic dwindles to fuel and groceries.

The occasional boredom is the worst part of the job, in Mahan's opinion. When it is cold, dark and quiet he hunkers down to read the regulations over and over. If he starts to nod off, he opens the door for a while.

"In the winter we get the same eight people a lot," he said.

The weigh station guys get to know those drivers as they do inspections or go over announcements and regulations. They also know the barge schedules, the routines and whose business is booming.

One of their regulars is the Wonder Bread man. He got stranded on the peninsula for days during the big avalanches early in 2000, and hustles year-round to fill the demand for his products.

"They can't make buns fast enough for him," Mahan said.

Pulling over

to a new career

The state of Alaska has 10 weigh stations. Some only operate seasonally or part time. Others, such as Anchorage, Fairbanks and the international point of entry at Tok, are open all the time.

The Sterling Weigh Station is responsible for the entire Kenai Peninsula. It has been around so long that people have gotten hazy about its origins. On the wall hangs a 1979 picture of the scales. That original station burned down and the new facility was built in the 1980s.

The compact but tidy office offers more than a weight or inspection. Informational notices -- regulations, highway construction announcements, weight restrictions and others -- are on the walls and informational brochures on hazards are free for the taking from the window sill.

Mahan came into the weigh station job 2 1/2 years ago after years on the road himself. Five generations of his family live on the Kenai Peninsula, and he was born in Soldotna.

"I drove truck for 11 years before I got this job," he said.

An interest in vehicle safety issues grew out of that experience. He decided to switch to the weigh station job to promote safety and found other advantages, as well.

One is flexibility.

"We can work anytime we want as long as Anchorage knows and we get our hours in for the week," he said.

Another is keeping close to home and more time for family life.

"I get a schedule now," Mahan said.

Starting out, the job involved a lot of specialized training. The state sent him to intensive courses in vehicle inspection and North American vehicle standards.

"They said, 'You will be good because you used to be a truck driver.'"

A trucking system

for the 21st century

"Our safety record in Alaska is excellent," said Douglas Terhune, the chief of the vehicle inspection enforcement section for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.

"There are some unsung heroes out there. Most people don't understand where the stuff on the store shelves comes from."

The state is the envy of many others, because the relatively small number of truckers tend to be responsible. Other places have problems with transient drivers out to make quick bucks and evade "the system," he said.

Terhune praised Alaska's transit companies as conscientious and cooperative.

"There is real pressure to skimp on maintenance and drive too many hours," he said.

Marginal operators try to do that and cut costs and prices in the competitive market, he said.

"The major carriers are very supportive of what we do. It levels the playing field. They may be sharp business people, but they are members of the community.

"We are pretty proud of the carriers up here."

Terhune explained that the past few years have brought big changes to Alaska's weigh station system.

The jobs Mahan, White and their colleagues do used to be spread piecemeal over a variety of agencies. In 1997, the governor consolidated weighing, permitting and safety inspections for commercial trucking into one section at DOT. At that time, the state only had four truck inspectors, Terhune said.

"Since then we have trained all our weigh station operators," he said.

The old system was fairly archaic just a decade ago. Now all the stations are computerized and networked. Soon real-time links and wireless capability will unite the network of stations and mobile units, he said.

The No. 1 goal of the whole commercial vehicle enforcement program is safety. The secondary goal is to preserve the highway infrastructure by preventing damage, such as that caused by overweight vehicles, he said.

To reach those goals, Terhune's staff emphasize education and prevention more than writing citations. In the process, they encourage truckers to be professional as well.

Studies of road use show that just the presence of active weight station personnel deters operators from running overweight or shoddy equipment.

"We are trying to prevent accidents rather than catch people," Terhune said.

"We try not to get into a cat and mouse game."

The enforcers

Most of Mahan's shift is spent at the computer console, peering out the window at rigs as they pull in and keying in statistics on the vehicle class, license number, load type and weight. The information feeds into a growing database.

Mahan has grown so familiar with the traffic that he can identify many of the trucks at a glance.

"When I first started, I used a cheat sheet," he said.

Empty trucks pass in the outer lane. Loaded ones pause on the scales.

"State statutes say how much each axle can weigh," he said.

But every spring breakup complicates the picture. Companies run a flurry of trucking in late winter to beat the thaw. When seasonal weight limits are in effect on many major peninsula roads, the weigh station officers and truck drivers have to figure out exactly where they are going to drive to figure out how heavily the trucks can be loaded.

"This year was bad for that," he said.

Mahan cited the example of hauling propane down from the Swanson River gas fields. The limit on Swanson River Road remained 75 percent after weight restrictions on the Sterling Highway were lifted. Haulers used a tag-team maneuver, with trucks coming down from Swanson River in pairs, then off loading into a single truck for the highway part of their route.

Mahan and White allot about one to one-and-a-half hours per day for vehicle inspections. The regularity has taken care of backlogs and ensures that most peninsula trucks are kept current. Now the trucks they pick out for inspections are most likely to be unfamiliar.

"Anymore, it's if we haven't seen them for a while," Mahan said.

In the first 10 months of their current fiscal year, Mahan inspected 86 vehicles and White 89. They found more than 800 violations.

The most common problem they find is loose bolts. If people would inspect their own trucks, as they are supposed to do so under federal law, they would find nearly everything he finds, Mahan said.

Adequate inspections can be an issue in some circumstances, he said.

For example, in Anchorage, the weigh station is at the edge of town and inspectors lack room to pull over rigs in most of the city. Consequently truck lines within town rarely get checked.

"If they are in town, some of them are never seen," he said.

Vehicle inspection work includes a law enforcement component.

Mahan and White are called in for accidents involving commercial vehicles, where their role is to inspect the trucks to determine if mechanical failure was a factor.

One of the worst crashes Mahan investigated involved a semi that slid out of control on winter ice and hit a road grader.

"I've had two in one day," he said. "Then we go three or four months without having anything -- which is good."

The commercial vehicle enforcement officers are authorized to ticket violators, but do so only as a last resort, Mahan said.

"Sometimes I can go a month without having a citation. Then I can have three in one day," he said.

The inspections are not limited to the Sterling site. The officers have a van that gives them mobility. The entire peninsula is their turf, but the lack of appropriate truck turnouts makes it difficult for them to take their work on the road.

"Once in a while we'll go down to Homer and do it on top of the hill," he said.

Their biggest bust was in Moose Pass about a year ago.

"We were driving to Seward one day, and he pulled out in front of us," Mahan said.

The truck was 85,200 pounds overweight, had no permit and no chain tie-downs for its load. By the time the Sterling duo finished writing him up, the trucker owed $4,790 in fines.

"I liked that day," Mahan said.

The point is not to bust people, but to make sure the rigs on the road are safe.

Mahan said helping truck drivers is the best part of his job. And one way to do that is by enforcing the vehicle safety rules.

Sometimes some companies cut corners on maintenance and pressure drivers to use rigs they distrust. Sometimes some companies call Mahan and ask if such-and-such drivers asked him to inspect their trucks. He declines to answer.

"I can't turn in a driver," he said.

Mahan wishes he could get automobile drivers to understand more about truck safety, too. The truckers complain about cars that cut them off, drive in their blind spots or do other things that trucks, because of their limited maneuverability, cannot respond to.

"Everybody should have to ride in a semi to know what it's like before they get a license," he said.



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