Truckers Riled Over City Ban

March 09, 1992|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Staff Writer

For a law-abiding citizen, Curley Smith commits a crime with remarkable composure.

No matter that a police officer is watching from the street and a reporter is sitting in the passenger seat. Mr. Smith fearlessly steers his truck down Boston Street through Baltimore's waterfront communities of Canton and Fells Point in broad daylight.

Let 'em eat diesel fumes.

"I'm on a protest," says Mr. Smith, an East Baltimore resident who has been driving big rigs for 28 of his 44 years. "Baltimore is not a friendly town for truck drivers. This is just the latest straw."

What Mr. Smith is protesting is the silence of the loads. Since Feb. 17, the city has been banning tractor-trailers from a sizable chunk of Southeast Baltimore's waterfront, and the drivers are steamed.

"It's unfair. It's totally unfair," said Mr. Smith's wife, Pam, who dispatches and handles paperwork for the couple's two trucks. "The city says it needs money, and it's driving businesses away."

Baltimore's newly created "Local Truck Zone" is bounded by President Street to the west and Fagley Street to the east, Eastern Avenue to the north and Boston Street on the south. Trucks of more than 10,000 pounds are banned unless they're making a local delivery or pickup.

The city's Transportation Department created the regulation in response to neighborhood concerns about the noise, vibration, pollution and congestion caused by the hundreds of tractor-trailers that passed through the area daily.

Studies found that busy streets like Boston and President streets handle as many as 1,300 trucks in an 11-hour period. That was more than researchers observed leaving Interstate 83 at Fayette Street or traveling into the city on Interstate 395.

"It's been so bad that sometimes there were wall-to-wall trucks," said Nelson H. Adlin of the Fells Point Business Association. "You couldn't talk outside the building because of all the noise, and sometimes you couldn't talk inside."

But the action has truckers in a furor. Displaced from roads that trucks have used for generations, many in the industry accuse Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke of kowtowing to the affluent owners of the condominiums and high-rises that have sprung up along the harbor.

"We agree that there should be just certain roads designated for trucks," said Walter C. Thompson, executive vice president of the Maryland Motor Truck Association. "But take a route away from us and the trucks have to go somewhere. They [the city] do things like this, and they wonder why businesses are moving away."

Many of the trucks that use the waterfront route are on port-related business, often taking shipments from the city's marine terminals to warehouses across town.

The intention of the plan is to get more of those trucks to take the harbor tunnels. They frequently provide a more direct route and generally a safer one. The Fort McHenry Tunnel on Interstate 95 is a lot easier for a 60-foot-long vehicle to negotiate than the average city street.

But truckers prefer to avoid the tunnel for one reason: money. A five-axle truck pays a $4 toll each way, although the cost is discounted up to one-third if the tunnel tickets are purchased in volume.

Even worse for some truckers, police at both of the tunnels inspect carriers randomly. They detained more than 1,400 tractor-trailers in a recent four-month stretch. They discovered safety violations in more than one-third of those trucks, and even the ones they passed were kept off the road for up to an hour.

"We're going to be forced to bear the added cost and go through the tunnel," said Gary P. Ringer of Ringer Enterprises, a small West Baltimore trucking firm. "That'll cost us thousands of dollars, and somebody has to pay for it. I am already getting calls from one steamship line that's worried about the cost."

The greatest hardship will be felt by the mom-and-pop operators like the Smiths. Mr. Smith hauls 43,000-pound loads of refined sugar from the Domino Sugar plant on Key Highway to a Dundalk warehouse.

Bound by a contract, the Smiths can't pass along their new costs, so the tolls mean they would take home less money -- perhaps $250 less each week. Instead of taking the tunnels, Mr. Smith drives an alternate city route through Highlandtown and down Pulaski Highway.

This new route brings the rumbling tractor-trailers within spitting distance of rows of working-class town houses and several schools. In essence, trucks like the Smiths' simply have been pushed from upscale neighborhoods into less-affluent sections of town.

"I don't think it's a very safe route to take -- it's a lot more cars and a lot more intersections," said Stephen Jones, president of Port East Transfer Co. "But then the residents on that truck route aren't as wealthy as the people on Boston Street."

City transportation officials denied charges that they favor the rich. Creating the local truck zone was an attempt to balance the concerns of industry with the legitimate problems of Canton and Fells Point, they said.

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