A state House committee on Thursday voted 10-3 in support of a bill to raise fines for truck drivers attempting to use Independence Pass.
It is already a violation of state law for drivers of vehicles longer than 35 feet to use the pass. Many truck drivers do it to save time and gas. The fine currently is $500; the bill seeks to raise it to $1,000. The fine would increase to $1,500 if the violation results in a tractor-trailer getting stuck on the narrow highway, causing a lane closure.
Having cleared the House Transportation and Energy Committee, the bill now faces consideration by the Appropriations Committee.
State Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, co-sponsored the legislation with Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush, D-Steamboat Springs. Hamner’s district includes both the Pitkin County and Lake County sections of Independence Pass.
“The fines we have in place are not high enough since drivers continue to break these laws,” Hamner said in a statement. “This bill will make sure these laws are being followed and enhance the safety of drivers and truckers on Independence Pass.”
Mitsch Bush said numerous stakeholders were consulted in order to reach a consensus on the issue. Reached by phone Thursday, Hamner said one of those stakeholders was the Colorado Motor Carriers Association, which works on behalf of the interests of the trucking industry. The association supported the bill, she said.
“We worked very closely with the motor carriers,” Hamner said, noting that an informational meeting was held recently at the Eagle County government building.
Hamner said Pitkin County Commissioner Rachel Richards and County Manager Jon Peacock offered live testimony in support of the bill. Opponents, she said, were concerned that GPS systems might inadvertently steer a truck driver toward the pass despite the letter of the law.
“And I think some people are just opposed to fines in general,” Hamner said.
Pitkin County Undersheriff Ron Ryan said the number of incidents in which a truck driver has tried to use the pass, and gotten stuck, has been rising steadily in recent years. Exact figures were not available immediately Thursday.
“Obviously we are in support of that bill,” Ryan said. “It creates a public-safety problem when oversized vehicles try to use a road that is not designed for them.”
He noted that Independence Pass, which is open only from late spring to early fall, has many recreational users such as bicyclists, runners, hikers and sightseers. Large vehicles using the pass can create dangerous situations, he said.
And when a truck gets caught on the roadside cliff wall or is unable to negotiate a curve and blocks one or more lanes, it can take hours to clear the accident, Ryan said.
Enforcement of higher fines is not the sole solution to the problem, both Ryan and Hamner said. The state and the trucking association will embark on an informational campaign to get the word out about the restrictions, fines and places where drivers can turn their rigs around to get back on the right path.
“More signage is needed,” Ryan said, “although there is a lot of signage already.”
“The signs don’t explain the punishment,” Hamner said.
She added that under the new bill, the fines will apply to drivers of recreational vehicles longer than 35 feet as well as commercial vehicles.
Independence Pass, world-renowned for its high elevation, hairpin turns and gorgeous scenery, is a paved corridor that technically covers the area between mile markers 47 and 72 on state Highway 82. When it is closed in the winter, Aspen is isolated from the eastern side of the state unless motorists take a route through Glenwood Springs.