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Dumb Laws: Propane & Natural Gas Powered Vehicles

A farmer has one apple, then he adds a second apple. How many apples does he have? Correct – two. Another farmer has ten oranges and sells five of them, leaving how many oranges? Five. Simple problems with simple answers. A third farmer has thirteen apricots, but he loses ten plums and twelve tomatoes. How many bananas is he left with? If you can solve this, then there is no reason for you to read this week’s article on how much bonus weight natural gas vehicles receive according to a new Illinois law.

The old adage reads “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. Last month, when Illinois adopted certain provisions of the federal FAST Act transportation bill, the author took the perfectly clear language of the law and dropped a big ‘ol bomb on it.

Here’s what the now broken Illinois law used to say: “A vehicle or combination of vehicles that uses natural gas or propane gas as a motor fuel may exceed the above weight limitations by 2,000 pounds, except on interstate highways”

Easy-peasey. If a vehicle uses natural or propane as fuel, it receives a bonus 2,000 pounds over legal weights, except on the interstate highways. The reader may disagree politically with this law, but to argue the law is not clear in its interpretation is ignorance.

There was, however, self-inflicted confusion. Some in Illinois law enforcement interpreted the crystal clear language of the old state law with muddy federal guidance. While the old language never mentions what percentage of the vehicle must be fueled by propane or natural gas, some said it must be 100% fueled by alternative means.

This was 100% abrogation of the state law. This faulty interpretation resulted in many angry truckers stopped on local roads (not interstates) receiving overweight violations when they should have been legal according to the plain reading of the law.

Along came Illinois Public Act 99-0717, which blew up a perfectly clear law. In fairness, it’s always better if there can be harmony between interstate highways and all other roads. But Illinois size and weight law is laced with rules split between the two. It’s nothing new, and there was no reason to force the lousy new federal law upon all local roads in Illinois.

What does the new Illinois law say? It adopts the federal language of the FAST Act and applies it to all roads in Illinois:

“A vehicle or combination of vehicles that uses natural gas or propane gas as a motor fuel may exceed the above weight limitations by up to 2,000 pounds, the total allowance is calculated by an amount that is equal to the difference between the weight of the vehicle attributable to the natural gas or propane gas tank and fueling system carried by the vehicle, and the weight of a comparable diesel tank and fueling system.”

What? Huh? Time for dissection.

First, notice it now says “up to 2,000 pounds”. This means if the vehicle owner invests significant dollars to upgrade his fuel system to natural gas or propane, he may not receive the full 2,000 pounds as before.

Second, there is a difficult calculation to be had. This formula requires the police officer to know how much the alternative fuel system weighs. Exactly how is a police officer supposed to know this information or weigh the system? Shall the trucker disconnect the alternative fuel system and leave it sitting on the scale?  Part two of the calculation requires the police officer to know what a “comparable” diesel system weighs. Exactly how does a police officer determine what is “comparable” and how much a “comparable” system weighs?

Lastly, the new state law strikes the interstate provision, effectively forcing the federal law on ALL highways in Illinois. This was completely unnecessary. As mentioned before, the  federal FAST Act only required states to apply this ridiculous language on interstates. The old state law did not include interstates anyhow, so this new federal language could just as easily have been assigned to Illinois interstates only.

When ambiguous laws are written, there will be ambiguous interpretations. Who are the victims of ambiguous interpretations? The truckers. Because the new law provides police officers at roadside zero help to interpret this catastrophe of a law, they will interpret it themselves as they best see fit.

Great job, Illinois. Hats off.

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