Truck Terror

Our frustrated writer battles diesel demons

It's barely 7:30 a.m., and some gap-toothed fiend is dishing me a truckload of hell. He's leaning out the cab of his turquoise Kenworth W900, a monster rig that just roared up to our corner, its trailer of dastardly dishwasher parts in tow.

"Say what?" this long-hauler hollers over 600 horses of growling diesel, his Pennzoil cap nearly tumbling off. So again, I ask whether he can't read signs prohibiting trucks from our neighborhood, or whether he just doesn't give a rat's ass. He's puckering to say something smart when his cell phone rings. Holding onto his cap, the trucker jerks inside to push a button. "Yeah, just some jerk-off here giving me a bunch of shit," he yells into the phone.

Then he angles back out the window to utter what must be a mantra crackling across America's CB airwaves. "Well, buddy," he snarls at me, "why don't you just go ahead and call the cops?"

So I do. And to its credit, one morning--six weeks later--the Tucson Police Department does post a motorcycle cop on our downtown intersection. By that time, of course, the Pennzoil-topped demon has long since careened back to his Hades homebase.

In a bit more than two hours, the officer lurking behind a roadside mesquite tickets five big rigs and has one towed. Then we don't see him again. And the trucks resume with a vengeance.

Now, you could call this a problem by design, or a sign of the times. As Tucson traffic swells, so do the number of big rigs rumbling through residential areas. And my area is said to be among the worst. Sandwiched between Interstate 10 and Park Avenue south of downtown, the Armory Park Neighborhood has become a sexy shortcut for every Diesel Dan from here to Kalamazoo. Symbolic of their power, some truckers--or perhaps the malevolent businesses to whom they deliver--have even taken to twisting no-truck signs away from the street.

With police backup vanishing, I undertake months of phone calls that carry me up and down the ladders of City Hall. Finally, transportation department spokesman Michael Graham talks turkey. "I just don't know what has been the holdup," he says, adding that the city has about $20,000 earmarked for "traffic calming" devises such as speed humps and medians through Armory Park. But even that money is tied to another, delayed project.

Thus, the trucks rumble on, and I become increasingly twitchy; even leaf blowers now prompt a frazzled leap to the window. Meanwhile, the diesels have begun mapping a malignant blacktop right into my subconscious. One night, I toss and turn, lost in creepy dreams of a demonic convoy. Black rigs all, they've commandeered a smoldering stretch of Interstate 10 just this side of Willcox, and they set about creaming all righteous drivers in their path.

John Burr is president of the Armory Park Neighborhood Association. And though no priest, he assures me that these truck fears aren't merely the products of my spiritual void. Instead, he believes a realignment of South Park Avenue in the 1990s--which closed off most westbound feeder streets to the warehouse district--only made things worse. "It funneled everything onto 18th Street," Burr says. "It's about the only route out now for that industrial complex."

For similarly temporal answers, I turn to Brad Holland, deputy Pima County attorney for neighborhood protection. "Truck drivers are very important to the economy, and they're not making a zillion dollars," he tells me. "But there's some real tension about the burden these trucks put on a neighborhood, whether it's noise or the sheer weight of them upon streets that have not been designed to handle them."

Either way, he says, "There isn't an easy solution except for strict enforcement, and we don't have enough cops to put after every truck."

And we never will, according to John Pein, manager of state and regional planning at the Arizona Department of Transportation. Already, "at certain portions of I-10 in the Tucson area, 40-plus percent of traffic is truck traffic," he says. Unfortunately, those numbers are only going to skyrocket. "I was recently involved in a freight study, regarding I-10 from Florida to California," he says. "As I recall, (commercial truck traffic) is predicted to approximately double by 2025. It's not going away."

But can it become less, say, vile? Perhaps. Indeed, after a few more phone calls, it becomes clear that not every rig is actually an 18-wheeled agent of Satan.

"The rank-and-file, reputable companies have very strict policies about traveling through residential areas," says Karen Rasmussen, president of the Arizona Trucking Association. Still, "some of the owner-operators probably don't observe that. I think there's a tendency ... if you see 40 cars backed up at an intersection, you're going to try to get around that any way you can."

The worst thing is that we've all helped create the monster, says Anne Canby, president of the Surface Transportation Policy Project in Washington, D.C., and former head of Delaware's Transportation Department. "Just think about it," she says. "There are lots more UPS, Fed Ex, DHL trucks--all those companies that 30 years ago barely existed, out there delivering everything that we order over the Internet."

Still, Canby says cities need to agitate for money from the feds to keep those trucks in line. "There is plenty of flexibility in federal funds to address something like this. But people have to push to make it a priority, because these little issues don't tend to get attention unless the local officials push them."

And local is where the buck stops, Canby says. "If the trucks are having problems getting to where they need to go, then that's an issue that needs to be looked at. But neighborhoods should be kept livable. You don't want a street with kids playing on it to have big 18-wheelers rolling down it. That's a no-brainer."

And one of these days, those in Tucson with power to solve this problem might actually do so. Until then, however, I'll remain a neighborhood guard, my cross, my stake and my portable phone always handy. Or so I pledge, as Mr. Pennzoil steers his rig through the shrinking gap between good and evil, and roars off in a black belch of treacherous smoke.