On the southern edge of Urbana, seven vehicles are stopped on Highway 65. Orange warning lights flash against the darkness.
At the center of this scene is a monstrous 220,000-pound tractor-trailer. It’s carrying a white metal box roughly the size of a small house — an electrical control building destined for a substation in Oran, Missouri.
This rig is twice as long as a normal 18-wheeler. It’s nearly twice as wide and stands 3 feet taller than a typical trailer. As it waits to move, the droning idle of its 600-horsepower engine blankets the other nighttime sounds.
This is a superload.
“Every move that we make is big,” says Curt Boyden, a supervisor with Perkins Specialized Transportation Contracting (Perkins STC), a company that specializes in superloads.
It’s Oct. 26, 2016. Boyden’s crew is on day 9 of a 12-day move. It started in West Allis, Wisconsin. As the crew nears its destination, it is faced with carefully maneuvering this massive load down two-lane roads in rural Missouri.
“We have all kinds of things to be concerned with,” Boyden said. “We just try to keep a protective bubble around the load so we don’t have any scrapes.”
This late-night move is needed to help the superload pass through Springfield — trucks this size aren’t allowed into the city during high-traffic hours.
As midnight hits, the massive engine revs and the superload begins its departure from Urbana. It’s flanked by highway patrol cars, utility trucks and two other escort vehicles.
In the coming hours, the superload will zigzag through Springfield traffic signals, sidle over railroad crossings and slip its huge white control building under low-hanging cables as they are hoisted up by utility workers.
As more superloads hit the road across the nation, scenes like this are becoming increasingly common in Missouri — even though most superloads would rather not come here at all.
When superloads travel through the Midwest, many times the journey begins at Port Houston near the Gulf of Mexico. The port is a common stop for Perkins STC, one of a handful of companies nationwide that specialize in superloads.
The quickest route between the Perkins STC headquarters — located near Minneapolis — and Port Houston would involve driving about 270 miles through western Missouri.
But as the company’s trucks approach Missouri, they generally turn the other way.
“If we went directly south to Houston, we would go though Missouri, but most of the time we go around Missouri,” said Shelley Latham, business development manager with Perkins STC.
Avoiding Missouri is a common practice for superloads.
Before these massive trucks hit the road, Perkins STC and other carriers need permits from the states they will pass through. During this process, state officials set the exact route a superload must travel.
In Missouri, superload routes often end up looking like mazes. The state’s aging transportation infrastructure poses a major challenge for the Missouri Department of Transportation team that’s charged with finding ways to get superloads through the state.
“It truly is a maze when you look at it,” said Scott Marion, Missouri’s director of motor carrier services. “Sometimes we work with them for months to figure out how to get these loads through Missouri safely.”
The Missouri Department of Transportation wants huge shipments on the state’s major interstates, which are wider and well-maintained. The problem is that Missouri’s interstates are practically off-limits to big trucks because of the many low-clearance overpasses and weight-restricted bridges.
“Ideally, Missouri and every state would prefer for these big, wide, tall loads to be on interstates. They’re just built for it,” Marion said. “Unfortunately though, the load almost never ends up on the interstate.”
Instead, Missouri transportation officials put superloads on the state’s sprawling network of rural roads. Every day, these massive vehicles can be found crawling down the state’s small highways and lettered routes. They hold up traffic in small towns, sometimes attracting crowds of onlookers.
“Locals get a little excited when we see this monster thing coming through,” Marion said.
Latham said it’s not uncommon to see people setting up lawn chairs as a superload approaches.
“It looks like a parade,” she said. “Some people are in awe and take pictures. Some are not happy because it takes us 30 minutes to turn a corner.”
While causing a spectacle is one thing, a greater concern is the added time and expense that come with using small roads. Latham said one recent superload trip took four days just to travel through Missouri.
Today, many superload shippers do everything they can to avoid driving through Missouri — even when the destination is Missouri. On one recent job from central Illinois to Kansas City, Perkins STC decided to haul via Iowa rather than go through Missouri.
“We took the route with the fewest miles we could in Missouri,” Latham said.
Despite these issues, superloads are still increasing in Missouri. In 1995, just 35 superloads came to the state. Last year, there were 3,657.
Since 2012, the number of superloads in Missouri has increased by nearly 40 percent.
“I just don’t think most of us realized how fast this industry is growing,” Marion said.
The increase in superloads is driven by both advances in manufacturing and ongoing work to upgrade the nation’s energy infrastructure.
Common superloads include huge power plant transformers, university-scale heating system boilers and giant oil refinery components. The national wind power boom has also led to many shipments of turbines and other oversize parts from specialized manufacturers.
Moving these products can be very pricey. Each state has a different cost structure for superload permits — Missouri permits can cost more than a thousand dollars depending on the complexity of the move. As superloads cross state lines, the costs escalate.
“By the time we go across several states, we’ll have $40,000 to $50,000 spent on just oversize permits,” Latham said. “On top of that, we also have to pay for highway patrol escorts, sign removal and stoplights that need to be lifted or pulled down.”
The situation could be costly for the state of Missouri as well. Our state may be missing out on job growth opportunities as the oversize manufacturing segment expands.
“Sometimes a company will say they want to open a manufacturing plant, and we say: ‘Don’t build it in this state, this state or this state. You’ll never get it out of there,’” Latham said. “Unfortunately, Missouri is one of those states.”
Experts say there are several steps Missouri can take to become more welcoming to superloads.
Most important, the state could invest in transportation infrastructure to remake old roads and bridges and ensure interstates are accessible to huge trucks.
Many states in the eastern part of the country have similar problems with aging transportation infrastructure. However, Missouri’s issues are more problematic for shippers because of our central location.
“Whether you are going north and south or east and west, Missouri is right in the dead center,” Latham said.
Missouri’s infrastructure problems are also exacerbated by the state’s natural geography. Ozark hills can be tough for trucks of all sizes. Missouri’s many river and stream crossings also multiply the chances that an out-of-date bridge could block a route.
Many stakeholders in Missouri agree that the state needs to boost transportation funding and remake the state’s transportation infrastructure. A major effort would likely require new taxes.
While improved roads would be ideal, Latham said Missouri and other states could make a positive difference by simply harmonizing how they regulate superloads.
“When we have to cross state borders, each state is like its own little country,” she said. “Each has its own set of rules we have to go by.”
She said that at some state borders, superloads have to stop just to switch from one color of flag to another in order to satisfy the regulations in each state.
The Missouri Department of Transportation is actively working to address this problem. Marion said his division recently completed a review of its regulations. It’s proposing to clarify or eliminate 64 percent of the division’s current rules.
As part of that review, his team discovered that Missouri is one of the only states in the region that require extra-heavy shipments — even ones that aren’t especially tall or wide — to have law enforcement escorts. Marion said that’s not needed in every situation.
“We hope to be able to rescind that rule so it won’t be quite a burden on the industry,” he said.
Going further, Marion also recently helped form a regional committee, of which he is the chairman, that is working to standardize regulations across state lines.
“One of our goals is to at least get the 10 Midwestern states to harmonize and be closer in our regulations,” he said. “Then carriers moving within our region won’t have quite so many obstacles.”