Trucks and the Interstate

Posted Aug. 11, 2010, at 5:59 p.m.

Before a federal pilot project, which moved large trucks from Maine’s secondary roads to the interstate, has even been completed, there is a battle brewing in Congress over where these trucks belong. Without evidence that heavier trucks are causing problems on the interstate, that is where they should stay.

Last year, Congress approved a pilot project allowing trucks weighing up to 100,000 pounds on I-95 in Maine. Previously, trucks weighing more than 80,000 pounds were barred from I-95 north of Augusta. As a result, trucks that weighed between 80,000 and 100,000 pounds were forced to travel local highways, through downtowns like Bangor. Those heavy trucks negotiating stop signs and tight turns were clearly a safety threat to pedestrians and drivers of passenger vehicles.

As part of the pilot, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is studying the effects of allowing the heavier trucks on the interstate. The administration is looking at accident data as well as wear and tear on the highway and bridges. The study, which will be helpful, but hampered by its short time frame, is slated to be completed by the end of the summer.

More thorough studies have found that the larger trucks belong on interstate highways. 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.

A study, conducted by Wilbur Smith Associates, an international infrastructure consulting firm with an office in Portland, found that the fatal crash rate on “diversion routes,” mainly two-lane undivided highways, was 10 times higher than the Maine Turnpike and interstate routes, based on miles traveled.

It also found that between $1.7 and $2.3 million a year in pavement and bridge repair costs could be avoided on the diversion routes if larger trucks are moved to the interstate.

Another economic benefit is that goods shipped to, from and through Maine are able to move more quickly when trucks are able to stay on the higher-speed highway system.

Despite this evidence, there are still efforts to revert to the old, more dangerous, rules. In a recent letter to Sen. Daniel Inouye, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, said she would strongly oppose an extension of pilot projects in Maine and Vermont.

“Longer and heavier trucks are hazardous because of their longer stopping distances, risk of rollover and greater chance of the last trailer swaying into the adjacent lane,” she wrote.

She fails to understand that these trucks would be even more dangerous on two-lane roads, where shorter stopping distances and swaying into adjacent lanes poses an even bigger problem. She also fails to understand that Maine and Vermont are asking to be treated the same as neighboring states and provinces.

Sen. Susan Collins and Rep. Mike Michaud are working to make a 97,000-pound interstate limit permanent.

They should soon have more evidence, rather than hyperbole, on which to make a persuasive case for the permanent change.

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