Milk truck drivers across the state of Minnesota are looking for relief from current weight hauling restrictions.
A coalition of cooperatives and Minnesota Milk are pushing for two separate pieces of legislation that would provide relief for milk trucks. Due to how they are regulated, one addresses trucks on interstates while the other addresses single unit trucks.
For the larger trucks, Minnesota's interstates have been limited to 80,000 pounds for decades.
The issues rose to the surface in 2016, with inconsistencies between states for multi-state cooperatives that saw different rules between states. Then, haulers were issued overweight tickets after hauling milk the same way for decades.
The federal government decided to standardize interstate weight limits in 1974. But the federal FAST Act, which was signed into law by President Obama in December 2015, characterized milk as a non-divisible load, which allows states to distribute permits that excludes milk trucks from federal weight limits.
"Like a big piece of construction equipment, you have to haul milk all at once," Josh Finnesgard said.
Finnesgard is the co-owner of Finnesgard Trucking out of Goodhue, Minn.
Unlike regulations in Wisconsin and Iowa, which alleviate the federal 80,000-pound weight limit for milk trucks, Minnesotans must continue to abide by that law or be issued a hefty fine for not doing so.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) included the change to its Department of Transportation bill, which will next be heard in committee as of this writing on March 9. With MnDOT's endorsement, that means the change will likely occur and semi-trailer milk truck drivers will be able to get a permit to go over the current 80,000-pound limit.
A separate matter is the overweight limits for single unit, or straight, milk trucks. While they can usually make regulations by axle, due to their short length they have trouble complying with the bridge law.
Through several rounds of negotiations with MnDOT and the Department of Public Safety, milk haulers, Minnesota Milk and Representative Steve Drazkowski (R - Mazeppa) made no progress in changing this restriction.
However, there is some wiggle room, as the current law shows the 10 percent increase is already being allowed.
In Minnesota, if scale tickets are pulled at the milk plants, trucks are given a 10 percent variance to their legal weight limit. But trucks must remain under the legal weight limit if caught over the road, or be subject to a criminal penalty.
When Finnesgard was issued a $2,300-fine for weighing 87,000 pounds while on the road, he approached Drazkowksi and Minnesota Milk for direction.
Hopefully, a bill authored by Drazkowski and Sen. Michael Goggin (R - Red Wing) may eliminate this discrepancy.
"Because of current weight limits, many milk trucks can only operate at 60 to 70 percent capacity, and only pickup at one farm at a time, to stay within the law's guidelines," Drazkowksi said. "It's a waste of our economy of scale and opportunities, and a safety concern for our drivers."
Drazkowski and Goggin composed a bill that would allow a 10 percent allowance on weight restrictions for straight-unit milk trucks after their constituents expressed grave concerns on the limitations of the current law.
"It's very unconstitutional that the Department of Transportation can look back at 14-days worth of scale records, for any product, of any private business without a search warrant," Drazkowski said. "It's an illegal search and seizure."
Minnesota is one of just a few states that has any such law.
"I was a little flabbergasted," Finnesgard said. "If I make it to the plant I'm good with 88,000 pounds, but if I get caught going to the plant, I get ticketed. I just wanted some kind of law that's the same so we know what we're doing."
Drazkowski said that former exceptions to the law worked well for milk haulers.
"There was a previous exemption to milk haulers that worked really well in the past," Drazkowski said. "But that exemption expired in 2014, and we're trying to create opportunities for truck drivers and dairy farms for the delivery of the milk, efficiently and safely."
Dennis Gavin will haul 2.3 million pounds of milk in 45 loads, on any given day, and relies on those exempt permits to legally distribute his product.
Gavin is the president of Caledonia Haulers, of Caledonia, Minn., and travels across state borders picking up and delivering fluid milk in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa.
"The challenge is that in Iowa, in each county I visit, I need a permit in addition to the state permit," Gavin said. "I have one truck that hits four counties. We were all busy last year and forgot to purchase the permits."
Because of that untimely mishap, Gavin's business accrued thousands of dollars in overweight fines last year; a total of $20,000 between Iowa and Minnesota.
However, with farms growing in size and the continually increasing volume of production, without a new law, Gavin does not see a solution that would meet the dairy industry's needs other than to pay the fines.
"Now, the problem is that we're too big to be legal on the roads. In Minnesota, for the weight limit to increase to more than 80,000 pounds our trailers have to be longer, and that's not possible here with the driveways and windy roads," Gavin said. "We want it to become legal, but the big question is how?"
Finnesgard agreed.
"The dairies are getting so much bigger now that we need to be able to carry a little more to be able to do this efficiently," he said.
Drazkowski and Goggin are hoping they have the solutions for milk truck haulers with their proposed laws, which were sent through the House and Senate Transportation Policy and Finance Committees during the week of March 6.
If the bill were not to pass, milk haulers would still remain subject to a fine, up to $10,000 for being over the gross weight limit.
As fewer milk plants remain, milk can travel over 100 miles for delivery, and current equipment and drivers do not have the time to legally haul more in order to accommodate weight restrictions.
"In a time where equipment costs are constantly rising and qualified drivers are increasingly difficult to find, it is very difficult to add more," Gavin said. "Some days it feels as though the fines are unavoidable in our operation."
While Gavin is fortunate to operate despite these challenges, for smaller-scale operators, such as Finnesgard, the current law could be detrimental to their business.
"I would have to add one more truck and another driver, and that's just to haul the same amount of milk," he said. "It's not feasible."
Opponents of the straight truck bill include MnDOT, the Association of Minnesota Counties and the Minnesota Association of Townships because of the insufficient funds for additional maintenance needed by the heavier weights.
But for Minnesota Milk, milk haulers and cooperatives, they contend that changing this law would not change how milk is hauled today.
"Milk haulers do what they need to do to get loads to market efficiently today," explained Minnesota Milk Executive Director Lucas Sjostrom. "But they do not want to feel like criminals while on the road."
For Drazkowski, he sees and understands the importance of this bill for the vitality of the dairy industry.
"This bill would allow the industry to continue forward and develop in a positive way without any hiccups or inhibition," Drazkowski said. "If our laws don't change, this could stop the growth of the industry."
Dairy Star writer Krista Kuzma contributed to this article.