By Jeremy Beren / NewsBreak Pinal County, AZ
(Casa Grande, Ariz.) — There is one particular stretch of Interstate 10 that Arizona Trucking Association president and CEO Tony Bradley says is "by far" the busiest stretch his organization's members use.
This corridor, running from Tucson to Phoenix, passes through Casa Grande — Pinal County's second-largest city, situated roughly halfway between the Pima County seat and the state capital. In-state truck traffic on this stretch of highway comes from border town Nogales, and it is crucial for ATA truck drivers making their way to California from Texas. Drivers also head from the Port of Los Angeles to Tucson, to Phoenix, and farther into the Southwest.
"The men and women of the trucking industry are salt of the earth, hard-working, and care about their fellow humans more than anybody could ever imagine," Bradley told NewsBreak in a recent phone interview. "It's been very rewarding to know that the stuff we do at the association positively affects what they do on the road and makes their lives easier."
The traffic volume along a specific 20-mile stretch between Casa Grande and Phoenix became newsworthy last week, when the Arizona Department of Transportation announced new, temporary signage would be installed restricting trucks to the right-hand lane only.
The interim measure is expected to remain in place as ADOT works to secure additional funding for an I-10 widening project slated to begin in 2023. Expanding the Phoenix-Casa Grande segment of highway to three lanes in either direction is a process ADOT expects will be completed in 2026.
The department says the fresh signage is intended to "help reduce crashes, along with the resulting delays and closures due to these incidents." But Bradley is skeptical, and the ATA is irritated.
"When you have a lane closure of this significance, it's going to impact our carriers, and we're afraid it may impact safety as well," he said. "What ADOT has done is they've decided that, because 20 percent of the accidents that happen in that 20-mile stretch involve a tractor-trailer, they're going to force all tractor-trailers to drive in that lane."
The ATA, founded in 1937, is headquartered in Tolleson and has around 330 member companies in its ranks. Bradley explained that the ATA's primary purpose is to represent members' interests in front of the Arizona legislature, as well as regulatory agencies and law enforcement in the state. When an ATA trucker faces challenges, Bradley's organization embraces "strength in numbers" and aims to produce a positive outcome for a member in need.
Bradley asserts that ADOT only came to the trucking association for signage input once the department had already decided on what it would do. He says he provided input when asked — such as requesting short sections along the 20-mile stretch where his drivers could pass before moving back into the right lane.
But according to Bradley, the agency pressed ahead on its plans without incorporating this input, and one of the new worst-case scenarios from the ATA's point of view is a "wall of trucks" clogging the right lane.
"If a passenger vehicle is trying to get around another vehicle, it's going to go into the left-hand lane and then have no place to go," he said. "So now, what you've created is two lanes that are going to be dealing with the slowest person in that lane."
Many ATA member trucks have "speed limiters," like adaptive cruise control. These are designed not only to save fuel, but also to keep a heavy truck's momentum and speed within a manageable range.
"Anybody that's driven that corridor knows that there are people far exceeding the speed limit, zipping in and out of traffic," Bradley said. "We believe that's what's causing the safety problems along that corridor, certainly not one truck trying to pass another truck."
Bradley thinks ADOT has fallen into a trap, where the perception is that an 80,000-pound truck is always at fault when its driver collides with a smaller car. He feels ATA members are being unfairly targeted when four out of every five accidents along the Tucson-Phoenix corridor involve passenger vehicles, not commercial trucks. He wonders whether patrolling law enforcement could have done a better job keeping unsafe speeding drivers off this portion of the country's fourth-longest interstate highway.
"It's frankly just a stupid policy that doesn't solve the problem they're trying to solve ... we know, from other studies, that 77 percent of all the accidents involving a passenger vehicle and a tractor-trailer are the fault of the passenger vehicle," he said. "Our drivers are professionally-trained (and) do this day-in and day-out. They want to do it safely. There's no incentive for them to do it unsafely."
Bradley made sure to note that the $400 million lawmaker-approved package is for the greater good with construction beginning next year, and he remarked that "everybody's going to be in the right-hand lane or the left-hand lane" fairly soon as I-10 expansion gets underway. As frustrating as the ATA finds the new ADOT restrictions, Bradley has been told the signage will disappear once construction reaches a sufficient point.
But with ongoing supply chain issues owing to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Bradley finds himself preaching patience on behalf of his drivers — whose tasks are very often thankless.
"Our economy is run by trucks," he said. "During the pandemic, people really appreciated and understood that if that truck didn't show up at that grocery store, they weren't going to get toilet paper or hand sanitizer. They weren't going to get food."