Published 12:00 am Monday, December 19, 2005

exercising new muscle|[12/17/05]

A year after the Legislature expanded the agencies’ authority on Mississippi highways, the state’s Department of Transportation and Highway Patrol are putting the finishing touches on training to execute those powers.

Under its new authority, MDOT has made three drug busts on out of state big rigs in the past two months.

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Legislation passed in October 2004 transferred authority to regulate commercial motor vehicles on the state’s highways from the Public Service Commission to MDOT and MHP.

Previously, those departments’ duties of keeping highways safe consisted only of checks for weight limits, license and registration tags, and proper fuel tax stickers.

Now, MDOT’s law enforcement officers have more mobile units than before, 75, up from 40, which can access information verifying a trucking company’s status to run in the state, and several safety checks that were previously divided among other state entities.

Those checks include viewing the driver’s log book to confirm time spent on the road, proper licensing for the loads they are hauling, making sure the signals and brakes work, and other driver activity such as fuel-up times.

&#8220We get more time and dialog with the driver this way to make sure they are running proper,” said Willie Huff, law enforcement director for MDOT.

These duties have put some teeth into the agency’s law enforcement functions, as was evident in three inspections since October that ended up being major drug busts.

A Mexican national was arrested for possession of controlled substance and turned over to federal drug enforcement officers to face federal charges after MDOT law enforcement officers seized about 1,274 pounds of powder cocaine with a street value of $11 million from a tractor-trailer he was driving.

Officers were suspicious of paperwork he presented during the inspection, Huff said in a release Dec. 2.

On two successive days in October, officers seized more than $800,000 in marijuana from two truckers, one from Georgia and the other from North Carolina. The two busts are not believed to be connected, but the source and destination are still under investigation. Both were released on bond from federal custody.

Officers on the ground credit the new powers for the successful busts.

&#8220In talking to the driver, you tend to learn a lot,” said Maj. Sylvester Ford of MDOT Law Enforcement.

The agency still gets maximum use of existing resources, Huff said, such as the &#8220pre-pass” system that allows trucking companies in good standing with all its permits to move through the scales without stopping, much like a toll tag system.

&#8220Trucks are like mobile warehouses these days. Companies want to save time and storage costs,” Huff said, emphasizing the efficiency of the pre-pass system. About 50,000 trucks per month travel across the Bovina weigh station.

Trucks are still weighed using an underground scale just off the exit. If the load is more than 10,000 pounds, it must travel across the scale.

MDOT Law Enforcement staff of 216 monitors weight of commercial vehicles on all interstate highways in Mississippi, plus smaller state highways that do not have scales.

As for MHP, training in the new duties entered its second phase Thursday, with 50 patrolmen from their nine departments gathered at the Flowers exit of Interstate 20.

The hands-on session focused on inspecting trucks &#8220bumper to bumper and rubber to roof,” said Cpl. James Thomas of the Arkansas Highway Patrol, in town to assist in the training.

As with MDOT’s new duties, trucks will be checked to see everything is in place and in good working order, said second district training coordinator Arthur McFarland, who has overseen the implementation of uniform federal standards in 17 states. The first phase focused on standards for making sure drivers’ licenses are up to date, log books are accurate, drivers are not fatigued and no illegal substances are on board.

&#8220To get the program started, these two are the basic programs they need,” Thomas said.

Future sessions will include training the patrolmen on standards for inspecting and handling ordinary cargo as well as radioactive and hazardous materials and checking out commercial buses.