Milk truckers could soon be freed from rules that keep them off Pennsylvania’s interstate highways during winter storms.
The rules, invoked for five storms between January and March, caused tankers to be rerouted onto secondary roads and made certain milk plants difficult to access.
State officials say the restrictions on truck traffic are needed to avoid massive jams that imperil motorists.
But Rep. Martin Causer, chairman of the House Agricultural and Rural Affairs Committee, believes milk haulers need highway access to make timely deliveries of their perishable product.
He has introduced a bill to exempt haulers from the travel restrictions.
“Without any way to get their milk picked up and delivered to market, farmers may have no choice but to dump it, and that is the last thing our struggling dairy producers need,” Causer said.
The ag committee held a hearing on the bill on Wednesday at the Capitol.
Under protocols developed since 2016, leaders from several state agencies issue restrictions for specific interstates based on the severity of the storm.
The options — used only when the governor has declared a state of emergency — include speed reductions, a ban on empty and double trailers, and a full ban on commercial vehicles.
Winter storms have caused several hourslong interstate closures in Pennsylvania over the past decade or so, including a March 2018 snarl in the Poconos during which one person died and a baby was born.
The state decided to limit commercial vehicles because there aren’t enough emergency responders, especially in rural areas, to end the backups quickly.
“If it’s predictable, it’s preventable,” said David Padfield, acting director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency.
The presence of tractor trailers can slow down the reopening of a snowbound highway.
Special equipment is often needed to get big rigs dug out and moving again after they’ve been stopped for a long time, said Jonathan Fleming, a Pennsylvania Department of Transportation official who is part of issuing the travel restrictions.
Haulers contend they are better equipped than general freight carriers to tackle winter conditions.
Milk trucks are equipped with differential locks, tire chains and drivers who are used to farm lanes and poorly maintained back roads.
Most drivers would say the interstate is the easy part of their milk run, said Keith Spicher, a Belleville dairy farmer who owns a milk truck.
Heavy tankers also have better traction than empty trailers, and they can handle hills better than double trailers.
Travel restrictions make the drive to the processor more complicated.
Steve Diehl, of Diehl Trucking in Wayne County, sometimes delivers milk from northeastern Pennsylvania and southern New York to a plant in Reading.
It’s hard to make that trip without using interstates.
“It is a real burden on our business,” he said.
Shunting milk trucks off the interstates doesn’t make the haul easier on the drivers either.
Secondary roads often get less treatment and have more stop-and-go traffic than interstates, said Tom Daubert, who owns a Mifflin County milk hauling company.
By law, a load of milk can’t be stored in a farm’s bulk tank or the milk truck for days on end, so if a driver can’t complete the route, milk may get dumped.
“You don’t just turn the cows off,” Spicher said.
Spicher’s milk truck holds $8,500 worth of milk.
The travel restrictions are not tossed out willy-nilly.
Days in advance of a storm, officials from PennDOT, the state Emergency Management Agency and the State Police consult with meteorologists on the storm’s possible conditions and path. During the storm the team meets hourly.
The group also talks with other states to ensure trucks can keep moving when they cross state lines.
When they impose restrictions, the agencies try to give haulers enough time to make alternative plans, and they try to lift the ban as soon as it’s prudent, Fleming said.
The goal is to keep commerce moving while protecting lives.
Arguably, the travel restrictions worked. Pennsylvania had no major interstate closures from January to March, Fleming said.
Still, some people think the state went overboard in issuing vehicle restrictions, said Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Annville.
In 2008, the state created a snow-emergency exception that could apply to milk haulers.
But that directive, which focused on all workers deemed essential personnel, only applied when the governor closed all roads to all travel, including personal vehicles.
That’s only happened once since the rule was created, Padfield said.
Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski, the Democratic committee chairman, asked if the travel restrictions could be fine-tuned as the storm develops to limit disruption.
Officials sometimes lifted restrictions when they’re confident the storm will pass by certain areas, but making too many changes would cause confusion, Padfield said.
In the meantime, flouting travel restrictions comes with a price.
Police issued 1,800 citations and 280 warnings related to commercial vehicle restrictions in January and February.
Those citations each come with a $300 fine.
Of course, even if milk trucks are allowed on the interstates, there will be rare storms that are so severe the trucks can’t get through.
Spicher, the farmer and hauler from Belleville, has dumped milk just twice in the last 30 years. Both cases involved more than 2 feet of snow and high wind.
“There was just no way to safely drive anywhere,” he said.
In most cases, though, haulers do what they can to make sure the milk gets picked up.
With winter driving restrictions looming, Centre County hauler Rick Bird said he picked up some milk early this year.
That meant picking up his Amish farmers’ milk on Sunday, when they observe the Sabbath.
It was a break from decades of company practice, but Bird said he didn’t know what else to do.
Rep. John Lawrence, R-West Grove, said he believes Causer’s bill has strong bipartisan support.