The recent congressional approval of a change to truck weight limits on I-95 in Maine is unequivocal good news, news for which the state should be grateful to its congressional delegation for years of work. Sen. Susan Collins is especially deserving of gratitude for getting the change made so that trucks weighing 80,000 to 100,000 pounds can stay on the federal highway north of Augusta, rather than switch to secondary roads, endangering other drivers, pedestrians and damaging road surfaces.
The change is not permanent, but rather a one-year pilot project. And there’s the rub. Those studying the effects of the regulation change may find that the big rigs do extensive damage to I-95’s travel lanes and bridges north of Augusta. Safety will also be part of the study; will there be more serious crashes on the interstate?
It seems likely that state and local roads, as well as drivers and pedestrians, will fare far better with the big trucks staying on I-95. A 2005 report by The Road Information Program, a national transportation research group, found that 81 percent of traffic deaths occurred on rural roads in Maine from 1999 to 2003, although only 52 percent of the travel in the state is on these roads.
The economic benefits are also a consideration. Goods shipped to, from and through Maine will be able to move more quickly when trucks are able to stay on the higher-speed highway system.
Maine transportation officials ought to use the year-long study period to prepare a contextual background in which to consider the results of the regulation change. Included in that research should be an analysis of Maine’s freight transportation network, with an eye to see where costs are increasing and where choke points have developed. Rail, shipping ports, airports and highways — and where and how they connect with each other — should be considered.
If diesel fuel costs spike dramatically, as they did two years ago, which mode of transportation can be encouraged to maximize efficiency? Can the interstate highway system be further modified to reduce trucking costs, perhaps by designating truck lanes? Can trailers be moved by rail through parts of the network and then reunited with trucks?
The easing of the 80,000-pound weight limit is a victory for Maine, but it can also be a call to action to evaluate and improve the state’s transportation network and its links to the larger world.