LINCOLN, Maine — A truck driver for Marden’s Surplus and Salvage, Nick Petersen decided one summer Sunday in 2004 to count the trucks that blew by his house on Route 9 in Brewer. He counted 50 in two hours, or one about every three minutes, he says.
“They were just coming by, one after the other. Their Jake brakes were always squealing. There was all kinds of noise,” Petersen said. “I would say about 99 percent of them were coming down from Canada. And look at how torn-up Route 9 is. They’re always repairing it.”
That’s why Petersen and other truck drivers expressed relief and satisfaction at the joint federal and state action to start a one-year pilot project to exempt Maine’s federal highways from the 80,000-pound federal truck weight limit. The first full day of the project was Friday.
President Barack Obama on Wednesday signed into law the fiscal year 2010 Transportation Appropriations bill and its provision, written by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, allowing trucks weighing up to 100,000 pounds onto interstate roads north of Augusta.
Gov. John Baldacci signed a proclamation Thursday declaring a state of emergency that allowed the program to begin immediately. Under the previous law, trucks weighing more than 80,000 pounds were prohibited on interstate highways in and north of Augusta.
The truckers and state officials said the 20,000-pound increase would help truck drivers survive the crushing economic burdens placed on them by high diesel fuel costs and the recession. It also will improve driver safety and limit the damage done to local roads such as Route 9.
“We think it’s great,” said Bob Bethune, 51, of Howland, operations manager at Treeline Inc. of Lincoln, a forest management, wood harvesting and trucking company that operates a dozen logging trucks. “The increase in safety is the biggest thing I see.”
That thought is reaffirmed in a recent study of road traffic and accidents that noted that the crash experience of five- and six-axle combination trucks was seven to 10 times higher on Maine’s noninterstate highways than on the Maine Turnpike, which already was exempt from the federal weight limits, according to Baldacci’s proclamation.
National findings show that rural interstate highways are three to four times safer than rural secondary roads, and 82 percent of commercial-vehicle-related fatalities in Maine occur on noninterstate roads, the proclamation claims.
“Now we don’t have to deal with traffic on all the side roads,” said Shirley Harvey, of Winn, a Treeline trucker. “Car drivers get nervous riding on all those slippery roads during winter, and we got to try to not run over them. It’s a lot safer for everybody now and a lot less stressful for us.”
The new law removes an estimated 7.8 million loaded truck-miles of travel from Maine’s primary and secondary highway system each year, diverting the traffic to the safer interstate highway system, Baldacci said.
The truckers acknowledged that the new law has at least one negative impact. It shifts the burden of truck traffic and the expensive wear it creates on local roads to the crumbling federal road system. But the truckers believe that the federal roads are better-maintained than the local ones.
The pilot program “will permit an assessment of the impact of the safety, commerce and road wear and tear,” Collins said in a press statement.
The larger loads truckers can carry will allow them to make more money and spend less time on the road, Petersen said. Bethune estimated that under the new law, a trip from Brewer to outer Hammond Street in Bangor, which once took as long as 40 minutes on Route 9, when traffic was heavy, now will take 15 minutes, at most.
Truckers admit that while Friday’s average diesel price — $2.86 a gallon, according to mainegasprices.com — is nowhere near as burdensome as the high per-gallon average of $4.48 a gallon in April 2008, many truckers still work as many as 15 hours a day behind the wheel in order to take home a decent profit.
“We’re not supposed to, or to talk about it, but some guys — not ours — do that,” Bethune said. “Now those guys can actually carry more loads, or just go home at the end of a more regular day.”