Too-tall trucks a baffling problem for Virginia tunnel

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The increase in the number of too-tall trucks attempting to squeeze into the height-limited westbound Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel on the Virginia coast has officials bewildered. The westbound tunnel is 13 feet 10 inches at its lowest point and was built before the eastbound tunnel, which allows for a taller truck. The bouncing of vehicles can cause a tractor-trailer higher than 13 feet 6 inches to scrape the roof.

A year ago, enforcement was increased after two laws took effect with the support of the Virginia Trucking Association. One authorizes the Virginia Department of Transportation to use optical detection systems to spot trucks exceeding the overhead clearance. The other law makes attempted entry with a too-tall truck a Class 3 misdemeanor resulting in the loss of three driver demerit points. Authorities usually revoke a commercial license if the operator has lost six points. Fines tend to $85, although truckers can be ticketed up to $500.

Initially, it appeared to be working, said Luefras Robinson, a VDOT spokeswoman. The month before the laws took effect, tunnel workers turned away 95 trucks. In January 2006, only 51 turnarounds were reported. But the numbers began creeping up in the spring, with 60 turnarounds in April and 91 in May. “We worked very hard to educate the trucking industry,” Robinson said. “We’re baffled. The trucking industry is baffled.”

Truckers have at least two warnings to turn around if they exceed the height limit. If they don’t, they are directed to the Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-Tunnel 15 minutes away, which offers greater clearance and is less congested than the Hampton Roads tunnel. Officials plan to continue the education campaign in hopes the trend will reverse, Robinson said.