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Council considers jake brake ban

Regulation likely to only go into practice along 31st Street

City Council may consider an ordinance that would allow it to prohibit the use of jake brakes, although council is likely to put the prohibition into practice for now only along 31st Street below Mill Run, where a prior study would justify it.

Jake, or engine retarder brakes, slow diesel trucks on downhills by releasing cylinder compression earlier than normal so the compressions — which continue to occur even with the throttle off — don’t propel the truck forward, according to a video from Jacobs Vehicle Systems, a manufacturer.

The engine brakes are noisy, which has resulted in complaints from residents of the 31st Street neighborhood, due to trucks whose drivers are seeking to reduce speed they’ve built up on the way down Mill Run Road.

At council’s instruction, Public Works Director Nate Kissell recently surveyed the city for areas that would qualify for jake brake prohibitions — an effort that showed that such a prohibition would not be allowed by PennDOT on many of the stretches where jake brakes are most likely to be used.

According to PennDOT, a jurisdiction may not prohibit jake brakes on a downgrade steeper than 4%; an off-ramp from a 55 mph or faster highway; in a reduced-gear zone; where there has been a runaway truck crash in the last three years or a pattern of rear-end crashes by trucks; or on any stretch where the speed limit is 55 mph or more, according to information presented by Kissell.

There are at least four stretches of roadway in the city that are too steep to allow for a jake brake prohibition, each comprising both sides of a hill:

* On Seventh, Eighth and 17th streets between Sixth Avenue and Pleasant Valley Boulevard, on both sides of the peak around First Avenue.

* Fourth Street between 25th Avenue and Chestnut Avenue, on both sides of a peak around 22nd Avenue.

In addition, 18th Street from Newburg to the mainline culvert is “questionable,” according to Kissell.

Conversely, Sixth and Seventh avenues through town, Chestnut Avenue, Pleasant Valley and Valley View boulevards and Kettle Street from East Walton Avenue to Pleasant Valley are suitable for jake brake prohibition, according to Kissell.

Those stretches contain only mild slopes, where there are any slopes.

In addition to the ironic limitations of jake brake regulation, there are issues with enforcement.

The Altoona Police Department lacks the manpower to stake out an area to catch jake brake violators, and if it did have the manpower, it would likely dedicate it to speeding enforcement, said acting Chief Joe Merrill.

Otherwise, to catch a jake brake violation, an officer “would have to witness it,” Merrill said.

“Maybe we can hope to get voluntary compliance,” at 31st Street, said Mayor Matt Pacifico.

Yet even 31st Street isn’t clear-cut as a candidate for jake brake regulation, because of its narrowness — especially where the end of a bridge rail projects on a curve, one council member suggested.

“I don’t understand how we can tell someone they can’t use a DOT-approved mechanism to reduce speed,” said Councilman Jesse Ickes.

Maybe adding a speed limit sign would help, said Councilman Dave Butterbaugh.

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