Are SUVs illegal on city streets?

Minneapolis laws may restrict popular 'trucks' on residential streets --but no one's asking for enforcement yet

Crime is rampant on the streets of Southwest. Unprecedented numbers of criminals prowl the streets, devouring the taxes you pay, destroying the city's infrastructure and causing prices to rise.

Sound like hysterical hyperbole? Maybe it is. Then again, maybe you -- yes, you -- are one of the criminals illegally driving a Hummer, Cadillac Escalade or GMC Yukon on Southwest streets. Maybe you're part of the problem, not the solution.

It might be hard to believe, but Minneapolis has had a law on the books since 1960 that might well outlaw the largest SUVs from residential streets.

The list of endangered SUVs includes the aforementioned Hummer and heavyweight pals, as well as the Toyota Sequoia and Land Cruiser; Chevy Suburban, Tahoe and Avalanche; Nissan Armada; the Range Rover; Lincoln Navigator; the Ford Expedition and Excursion; and on and on.

Secret code?

One of the things those vehicles have in common is that they all weigh over 6,000 pounds.

According to the city's municipal code, any truck weighing over 6,000 pounds (three tons) is restricted to established truck routes. In Southwest, you'd pretty much be limited to Glenwood, Franklin, Nicollet, Lyndale, Hennepin and Penn avenues; Lake, 35th, 36th, 38th, 46th, 50th and 58th streets; and Excelsior Boulevard (see map, page 29).

But is a Hummer a truck? They're sold as sports utility vehicles, not big rigs.

The municipal code is a bit vague when describing just what exactly constitutes a truck: "the word 'truck' shall include trucks, trailers and semitrailers."

So a truck is a truck; that's helpful (see "circular definitions"). Maybe if SUVs are banned from Minneapolis, code-drafters can be next.

We asked Assistant City Attorney Henry Reimer to address whether an SUV could be considered a truck restricted to truck routes in Minneapolis.

"When they're talking about trucks and truck routes, I think the distinction is the 6,000 pounds weight," Reimer said. "So trucks that are…vehicles that are more than 6,000 pounds need to stay on the truck routes except, to the extent they need to deviate from the truck route to get to their destination."

The law provides for these deviations to allow truckers wheeling in, say, new furniture to be able to drive on the city's residential streets.

Differing opinion

Officer Ron Reier, the Minneapolis Police Department's spokesperson, insists that the city's code isn't vague at all.

"The Minneapolis ordinance clearly states, in 1960, that truck routes are established for trucks and here in this state, a truck is licensed different than a personal vehicle. So if you had an SUV, if you had a Hummer, if you had a Suburban…we're not talking apples to apples here."

Reier might be right. A "'truck' means any motor vehicle designed and used for carrying things other than passengers," according to the definition laid out in chapter 168 of the Minnesota Statutes.

Then again, the federal government states quite clearly in its CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) Standards that one of the definitions of a truck is "a four-wheel vehicle which is designed for off-road operation (has four-wheel drive or is more than 6,000 pounds GVWR [Gross Vehicle Weight Rating] and has physical features consistent with those of a truck."

A lot of folks might agree that that sounds a lot like an Excursion (the Eddie Bauer model weighs in at 9,200 pounds), Navigator (7,450 pounds) and Hummer (the newer H2 weighs 8,600 pounds, while the original H1 tips the scales at over five tons, at 10,300 pounds).

For purposes of comparison, a Toyota Corolla weighs 2,502 pounds; the hybrid Honda Insight is 1,850 pounds and a smaller SUV, the Saturn VUE, weighs 4,120 pounds.

Reimer said that as far as he's concerned, the city's code appears to treat SUVs as it does commercial trucks and that the restrictions that apply to the latter also apply to the former. However, he said he can't be certain until he's officially asked to interpret the definition of "truck" and conducts the research needed to answer the question more completely.

Rules of the road

Regardless of your feelings about SUVs, city staffers say there are logical reasons to restrict heavy vehicles from many city streets.

Said city Traffic Operations Engineer John Hotvet, "By the [regulations], the trucks are supposed to stay on a truck route until they are in reasonable proximity to their destination -- so that we don't have trucks driving down what should be straight-away residential streets. There are neighborhood livability issues. We don't want [trucks] wandering all over the place."

Bigger vehicles also batter city roads. Hotvet said the city makes its designated truck routes thicker so that they can handle the added weight of the trucks.

Credit for guzzling

Reimer brings up an interesting point when he notes "when you're looking at incentives and policies, you get a much bigger tax savings from buying a 6,000-pound vehicle that sucks gas than you do by buying a fuel-efficient hybrid vehicle."

President George W. Bush's 2003 economic stimulus bill provided small business owners with tax credits of up to $100,000 for vehicles weighing over -- here's that number again -- 6,000 pounds.

Critics claim the small business restriction is easy to get around, allowing regular folks with a taste for something huge on wheels to get the tax break.

Many of those same critics point to the disparity in tax breaks for hybrid car buyers. Last year, the feds gave buyers of cars such as the Toyota Prius and the Honda Civic Hybrid a credit of $2,000. This year, if you buy a hybrid, you get $1,500. Next year, it drops another $500, as it does in 2007, before it disappears altogether.

Do the math. The feds give some purchasers of SUVs a tax break 66 times the size of the break given to hybrid car buyers. The result? Federal taxpayers are subsidizing some SUV drivers to roll over city streets that deteriorate more quickly under all of that weight -- causing local taxes to go up. Gas prices continue to rise because of high demand and air pollution continues to turn the skies a nice shade of Sienna (the Toyota minivan is a relatively svelte 5,670 pounds, by the way).

It should be noted that both Bush and Democratic presidential rival John Kerry have issued campaign promises to continue the hybrids' tax break and raise it to $4,000 and $5,000, respectively.

Perhaps environmentalists and those unhappy with potholes can take heart in recent reports that Hummer sales are declining while waiting lists for Priuses lengthen.

Travis Lange, a salesman at Luther Toyota City in Brooklyn Park said there's a year and a half wait to get a Prius there, while salesman Barry Skog of the Wally McCarthy dealership in Roseville said there's no wait at all for a Hummer and that there are about 30 of them sitting on the lot.

It's doubtful that anyone really expects SUVs to be banned from Minneapolis, whether or not the city attorney's office is asked to define what constitutes a truck. Then again, in a few months, you won't be able to drive your Prius or Hummer, or anything in between, to a bar and have a cigarette, so who knows what the future holds?