Behind the Scenes of Heavy Hauls
Between its vast landscapes and underdeveloped or nonexistent road systems, navigating through Alaska can be daunting.
Collaboration and communication get the job done
Whether driving a four-door sedan or a semitrailer, traversing the 49th state is often a tricky endeavor, especially when hauling heavy loads, an integral aspect of transportation in Alaska that STR Alaska President Curtis Spencer describes as “very challenging.”
Before companies can even hit the road and begin worrying about the dangers they may encounter around the state, there are restrictions and guidelines they must follow to obtain permits for their hauls. “Chapter 25 Operations, Wheeled Vehicles” outlines the regulations of 17 AAC 25, which the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities (DOT&PF) issued as a guideline for commercial vehicle size, weight, and permit regulations required to travel on public roads. In general, the width of a vehicle, including its load, can’t be wider than 8.5 feet or taller than 15 feet. There is an exception for vehicles traveling the Dalton and Elliott Highways, as they are allowed to have a height, including load, of 17 feet. Power vehicles may not exceed 45 feet in length, and the cargo-carrying length of a semitrailer or trailer may not exceed 53 feet without arranging for necessary permits. The overall length of a combination of vehicles—for example, a truck and one cargo-carrying vehicle or a truck tractor and two cargo-carrying vehicles—may not exceed 75 feet, though a combination of a truck tractor and one cargo-carrying vehicle is not subjected to an overall length limit, according to 17 AAC 25.
Weight restrictions are determined by many factors, including the weight per linear inch of tire width and the weight on the axles. A single axle, for example, is limited to 20,000 pounds, while a 4-axle group has a limit of 50,000 pounds. Multi-axle groups must carry at least 6,000 pounds if the axle group weight is more than 50 percent of the legal group weight, and there are also minimum spacing requirements determined by the amount of axles that are being used.
Fortunately, the state’s transportation companies aren’t just familiar with the regulations they must adhere to, they know them backward and forward. Black Gold Express General Manager Jeremy Huffman says, “A lot of our guys have been driving for us for years, so they’re familiar with the restrictions and regulations.”
Heavy or Oversize Loads
But understanding the regulations and procedures is just step one—Huffman says plenty of preparation is required to make sure hauls can take place. “When we’re looking at doing an oversize move, we’ll do a route assessment and make sure that we have the clearance to do it,” he says. “If we can, we apply for a permit through the state, and they’ll say, ‘This is how fast you can go, how many pilot cars you have to have, how many axles you have to have,’ all those precautions.”
While the most visible heavy haul transports are likely big trucks carrying oversize or unusual loads, they aren’t the only hauls being conducted in Alaska. Some companies, such as Lynden, have the ability to transport heavy hauls in a variety of ways. “With Lynden’s integrated marine and air services, our heavy haul capabilities include intermodal services that extend beyond where the road ends,” says Eric Badger, president of Alaska West Express, part of the Lynden family of companies. Because every client has different needs, it’s important for companies to be able to transport a wide variety of heavy hauls, including the machinery, pipes, and oilfield modules that operators in Alaska’s industrial sectors require. Lynden prides itself on being able to meet customers’ requirements, regardless of the project. “Most projects for which customers require transportation services will typically entail a combination of overweight and oversize transports, some oversize only, as well as a wide array of associated legal loads,” says Badger. “Lynden has provided logistic support, legal load, and heavy haul services for a number of large projects over the years. These would include oilfield modules and other commodities for various oilfield upgrades such as Lisburne, Milne Point, Kuparuk, Oooguruk, Alpine, Prudhoe Bay, and Point Thomson. Other projects Lynden has participated in are refinery construction and upgrades, pipeline building and maintenance upgrades, power generation upgrades, construction of gold mining facilities, wind power generation, various road and facilities construction, seismic research, and bridge girders, to name a few.”
“Radio communication has been very, very helpful in avoiding dangerous situations… If somebody is spun out at the bottom or the top of a hill, and somebody comes roaring up the hill and there they are, it’d be good to have some advance notice.”
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Every haul has challenges, though some are more complicated than others. Lynden cites the Pogo Mine project as a particularly interesting haul: “Lynden was contracted to oversee the movement of needed heavy machinery, oversize camp modules, and all other goods to the remote mine site over a winter ice road, with the goal to supply the construction effort through the summer, until the 50-plus-mile all season road was to be completed,” says Badger. “This required over 500 inbound loads to be collected from all directions, transferred to a staging area, and then organized into daily supply convoys for delivery to the mine site seven days a week during a 2.5 month period.”
Lynden completed the project successfully, and Badger says projects like Pogo Mine have allowed the company to continue to “build a resume of capabilities that provides customers with seamless door-to-door project and heavy haul services.”
Heavy hauls are transported throughout the state, though some companies say the Dalton Highway is where the bulk of their work is typically completed. Huffman estimates that more than 50 percent of Black Gold Express’ work takes place on the notorious highway north of Fairbanks. “Most of what we do is go up and down the Dalton Highway,” Huffman says, adding that the highway presents a set of challenges that is rarely matched in other parts of the country. “That, in and of itself, is a different animal,” Huffman continues. “You don’t have cell phone service for 500 miles. When you’re doing a heavy haul in the [Lower 48], it’s definitely different than doing it on the Dalton Highway.” Spencer agrees, noting that the Dalton Highway even has an established nickname among companies and their drivers. “Everybody knows it as ‘the haul road,’” Spencer explains. “The haul road is an extremely challenging road to haul oversized loads up.”
Keeping Channels Open
Because the Dalton Highway is unique, it often attracts daring tourists who are eager (but generally lacking in experience) to make a trek up one of the Last Frontier’s most isolated roads. Their unfamiliarity with the haul road and its conditions can actually become a hazard or obstacle for professional drivers.
But tourists aren’t the only obstacles drivers encounter while completing heavy hauls up the highway. “We have a lot of wildlife,” Spencer says.
One solution to non-professional, inexperienced drivers and unpredictable wildlife is having open lines of communication. In order for drivers to be alerted about potentially dangerous situations, drivers rely on radio and satellite phones for communication while transporting heavy hauls, which can range from anywhere from 50,000 to more than 100,000 pounds.
And communication in Alaska and throughout the country has been undergoing a change for the last several years. In 2013, the FCC issued a rule stating all VHF radios must be banded in an effort to combat overcrowded frequencies. Because so many Alaska trucking companies operate on their own frequencies, the Alaska Trucking Association (ATA) and its members began communicating with ProComm, one of the state’s largest radio communication companies, to determine how the industry could utilize radio communications without every single company entering into written agreements with the FCC.
ATA applied for a license to operate up to a dozen channels, which the FCC approved. ATA member and non-member companies can pay for access to this frequency-sharing agreement. Of the twelve channels ATA applied for, ten are ATA Talk channels, one is the ATA Alert channel (to communicate an emergency or road hazard), and the final is the ATA Hail channel (for one driver to hail and direct another driver to a talk channel).
Aves Thompson, ATA executive director, says radio communication plays a crucial role in ensuring heavy haul transporters remain safe, particularly on isolated roads where there is little to no traffic. “It’s pretty much a way of life,” says Thompson. “If you don’t have communication, you’re pretty much out of luck. If you get stuck, you’re stuck.” While Thompson says that radio communication is an important method of warning other drivers of wildlife near or on the road, he stresses its core function is to report incidents. “Radio communication has been very, very helpful in avoiding dangerous situations,” he says. “If somebody is spun out at the bottom or the top of a hill, and somebody comes roaring up the hill and there they are, it’d be good to have some advance notice.”
Answering the Challenge
How to communicate with other drivers is just one obstacle heavy haul operators face when they travel through Alaska—there’s also the challenge of brutal weather conditions present for much of the year. Temperatures can plummet well below zero, so drivers take precautions against unforeseen circumstances that may result in disaster. “Tire chains, chaining up on hills, and making sure you have your cold weather gear with you” are among the precautions Black Gold Express drivers take for any haul in winter months, Huffman says. “If you break down and you’re by yourself on the road, that could mean life or death out there.”
In addition to the inherent risks of winter, there is more to be aware of when hauling goods throughout the state. “In Alaska, being challenged by the environment is only one half of the equation,” Badger explains. “The other half of the equation entails the challenge presented by the geography of the road traveled getting to the delivery point. This may be the Dalton Highway, any number of other roadways in Alaska, or various ice roads to locations that would otherwise not be accessible in summer.”
Despite the risks and obstacles, heavy haul transportation is a vital part of Alaska’s transportation picture, and the state’s transporters have found ways to approach these jobs safely while making a profit, with many of them seeking out heavy hauls.
“We definitely like the heavier stuff,” says Huffman, noting one of Black Gold Express’ current projects is hauling a 105,000-pound load to Prudhoe Bay. “The bigger, the better. We do regular freight moves, too—moving pipe and stuff like that—but we do consider ourselves a heavy haul carrier… We’re not just limited to do that, that’s what we really like to do.”
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