Delegation wants trucks off local streets

Posted March 31, 2009, at 9:37 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine’s elected officials are continuing their campaigns for a federal exemption that would allow heavy tractor-trailers to use Interstate 95 rather than have to drive on back roads and through downtown areas.

Maine’s congressional delegation has been battling unsuccessfully for years to convince their colleagues in Washington, D.C., to allow trucks weighing up to 100,000 pounds to stay on I-95 north of Augusta. Currently, trucks weighing more than 80,000 pounds must switch to local roads after leaving the Maine Turnpike, which is exempt.

In his latest attempt at an exemption, Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, introduced a bill that would give states the authority to set weight limits in the interstate system in order to make them consistent with surrounding states.

Michaud said his nationwide approach allows states to opt into the higher limits rather than forcing them upon states. While higher weight limits may not make sense for all states, in Maine they would help reduce transportation and road repair costs as well as make local roads safer, Michaud said.

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“It would allow our industries in Maine to be more competitive and save on fuel. It would also help reduce pollution by making sure we are getting the most out of every truck mile traveled,” Michaud said in a statement.

“And most importantly, it would promote safety for Mainers by making sure more heavily loaded trucks aren’t forced to take secondary roads through town centers in their travels up and down our state.”

U.S. Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins also plan to reintroduce legislation to address the federal weight restrictions, according to their aides.

Several highway safety groups, including the Truck Safety Coalition, have fought against increasing weight limits on I-95 north of Augusta and have instead argued that Maine should lower its limit on state-owned roads to 80,000 pounds. The groups have said that lower limits would reduce road deterioration and promote safety because the odds of tractor-trailer crashes resulting in fatalities increase as truck weight increases.

But state officials and members of Maine’s congressional delegation contend that lowering Maine’s limit to 80,000 pounds would harm the state’s major industries, such as forestry. Many of the trucks pass through Maine from neighboring states or provinces with 100,000-pound limits.

The Maine Department of Transportation also estimates savings of between $1.7 million and $2.3 million annually in road repair costs if the heavy trucks were shifted to the interstate.

Local roads were typically not designed to withstand the beating imposed by the heaviest trucks, a fact that opponents of Maine’s perennial exemption requests also cite in their push to lower limits on all Maine roads.

But many supporters say the biggest reason for the exemption is pedestrian and driver safety.

In 2006, an elderly pedestrian was killed by a tractor-trailer while attempting to cross a busy street in downtown Bangor. That truck, which weighed just shy of 100,000 pounds, had been forced off the interstate because of the federal restrictions.

Heavy trucks also have been involved in other accidents in downtown areas in recent years, including a rollover that dumped a load of construction and demolition debris near the Bangor Waterfront in 2005.

State lawmakers in Augusta are also trying to keep a spotlight on the issue.

Sen. Elizabeth Schneider, D-Orono, is introducing a joint resolution urging Congress to take action on the issue. Schneider’s district includes the Juniper Ridge Landfill, a destination for many of the heavy trucks.

“It’s horrible for business because it puts us on an uneven playing field. It’s detrimental to the local roads and it’s a huge safety problem,” Schneider said. “And the truckers hate it.”

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