Posted: April 4, 2013 at 11:10 pm
By Bryan Popkin, Kelsea Lynch and Stephen Sleeper
For years, Morgantown residents have complained about the large trucks that clog traffic downtown as they rumble by on Beechurst Avenue and Walnut Street on their way to deliver coal and gravel to the coal-powered plant on Beechurst or to various construction sites in the area. The trucks spew clouds of soot and diesel fumes and add to Morgantown’s traffic congestion and bad roads.
While these heavy trucks also contribute to Morgantown’s dangerously bad air quality, city officials insist there is nothing they can do to stop the trucks from driving through downtown. “It would be up to the state to regulate the trucks driving through town,” says Jeff Mikorski, Interim City Manager.
However, a West Virginia University law professor and a state representative from Morgantown say that city officials may have more authority to regulate trucks than they say they do. These experts suggest the city may not have asserted their authority because they do not want to risk offending Greer Limestone, which is owned by John and David Raese. The Raese family also owns the local newspaper, The Dominion Post and the local radio station. Many of the large trucks carrying gravel and cement through city streets are operated by Greer Limestone or are delivering gravel and coal for Greer.
“David Raese is a very active public citizen in town.” says Robert Bastress, professor of constitutional law at West Virginia University. The city may not exerted its authority, he says, because of “that and the concern over getting sued.”
In 2010, Bastress says he was asked by a Morgantown city councilor to look into the legal question of the city’s authority to limit or ban the large trucks clogging downtown streets. He concluded that while state statute gives the state Department of Highways responsibility for maintaining state highways such as Route 7 (which includes Walnut Street and a portion of Beechurst Avenue downtown), it specifically gives municipalities the power to regulate traffic on those byways.
“I concluded that the city could make a determination that since trucks above a certain weight damaged the roads they could limit them to certain routes,” Bastress says. “In other words, they could regulate weight at a level that would preclude coal truck traffic downtown.”
State Representative Barbara Evans Fleischauer , who represents Monongalia County in the House of Delegates, says she had also heard that city officials might have the authority to limit the trucks but were reluctant to do so out of fear of litigation.
With the upcoming city elections April 30, Fleischauer says she hopes there will be some new voices on the Morgantown city council willing to challenge the status quo and regulate the truck traffic. “There may be a new authority that would be less likely to offend [Greer],” she says.
Fleischauer and other residents say the city should at least ban the trucks from driving on Walnut Street. The trucks could easily be routed around on 1-68 so they don’t go through downtown Morgantown. Trucks that are too heavy can cause stress on the roads and create cracks and potholes.
“The excess weight is much more damaging to the asphalt and concrete,” says James Kotcon, professor of plant and soil sciences at West Virginia University.
Large trucks also cause a lot of noise. The trucks start the day much earlier than many residents of the city, sometimes around three or four in the morning. They have specially designed braking systems that are quite noisy, especially when moving downhill. Because the trucks often drive through residential neighborhoods, residents complain that the noise not only wakes them up, but keeps them up.
Tyler Coward, a 21-year-old student at West Virginia University, lives right on Beechurst. “Usually I start hearing truck brakes around 4 a.m. and they keep rumbling by all day long,” Coward says. “They make it hard to sleep.”
The commercial trucks also pose a safety concern for pedestrians and other drivers. The trucks are slower starting and stopping and their visibility is often poor. This makes it hard for drivers to see other cars or pedestrians.
“I’ve almost been hit a couple of times,” Coward says. “All of those times I was using a crosswalk and it seemed as though the truck drivers didn’t even see me.”