An overloaded tractor-trailer can become an 80,000-pound vessel of death on South Carolina’s busy highways.
That’s why the state inspects trucks, checks on driver performance and weighs loads to make sure others using the highways aren’t unnecessarily at risk.
But the state’s increasingly tight budget has reduced the presence of the State Transport Police.
The division reported having 122 officers a decade ago. That number had dropped to 109 by this year. Records show that 17 of those positions are either administrative or supervisory jobs. The agency today has 22 officer vacancies that it has been unable to fill, in part because budgets are tight, state records show.
During the past three years, budget cuts have trimmed the division’s state allocations to $2 million from $3.2 million and contributed to a more than $600,000 shortfall.
If the Transport Police can’t replace the $600,000 soon, the agency could lose millions of dollars in federal aid it now relies on to pay police salaries and to purchase equipment, such as mobile scales, used to weigh trucks. The $600,000 is needed to match federal dollars.
An Oct. 12, 2010, letter from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration says South Carolina will be “ineligible to receive” federal money without the matching state funds. The letter urges the department to address the shortfall.
Transport Police Capt. Rick Shell said his agency needs to keep officers on the road, both to protect motorists and to prevent heavy trucks from tearing up highways and bridges.
“You wouldn’t want to be going through traffic and an 80,000-pound truck is riding beside you with no brakes, right?’’ Shell asked. “You don’t want to be riding down the road with millions of potholes in it because heavy trucks have been tearing up the road, would you? You don’t want to be going over bridges that are going to collapse under the weight of your car because thousands of overloaded trucks have torn up the bridge, would you?’’
To help satisfy federal matching fund requirements and to protect the public, the Transport Police division will seek money from the Legislature in next year’s budget to hire 10 officers. That will help the agency operate weigh stations more often and result in more inspections of trucks, the division says. Now, at least seven stretches of interstate highways, including on I-85, I-95 and I-77, are without modern, functioning weigh stations.
The agency’s three full-service weigh stations are designed to operate 24 hours per day, every day of the week. But now, they’re closed on weekends, the division’s budget plan says.
The agency’s 2011-2012 budget request says the 10 additional officers will help by “incrementally rebuilding our force to an effective level.” But it says those 10 officers are “still insufficient.”
– Sammy Fretwell and Noelle Phillips