Congress weighs change to interstate truck limit

Posted Aug. 13, 2010, at 7:47 p.m.

I still remember the image of my mother, her outstretched hands framing either side of her head like a horse’s blinders, sitting in the passenger seat of our family car with my dad at the wheel.

“Ed, not on the curve! Not on the curve! Don’t pass trucks on the curve!”

With three kids in the back seat, my mom was terrified of the perceived hazards of large trucks on the road. The rest of us, my father included, thought my mother was being a bit over-the-top on this one.

Certainly, we were far safer on the interstate than secondary roads. And actually, the biggest threat to her family was the fact that, back in 1969, none of us would have been in child restraints and I doubt we were even wearing seat belts.

Still, that big, scary-looking truck wasn’t nearly as abstract as statistics about safety on the interstate or the yet-to-be conventional wisdom regarding seat belts. It was big, noisy and, back then, stinky. It rumbled along the road like a Jurassic-era monster, out to eat my mother’s babies.

This pleasant childhood memory came back to me recently when I read a story in this newspaper about the debate going on in Congress over truck weight limits on interstates.

Right now, Congress is deciding whether to make permanent a trial policy allowing Maine and other states to raise the weight limit for trucks on interstates from 80,000 to 97,000 pounds.

Before the temporary rule change, larger trucks could use the Maine Turnpike and other exempt highways, but not all interstates. The result was that big trucks would exit the highway in Augusta and take secondary roads north to Bangor and beyond.

The harm of this policy is multifaceted: It discourages commerce in our region, putting us at a disadvantage in terms of shipping times and cost. It forces big trucks onto secondary roads that are not as safe as interstates. It tears up those secondary roads, which were not always built for that kind of traffic. And it hinders trade with our friends in eastern Canada.

The Maine Department of Transportation estimates that the state would save between $1.7 million and $2.3 million a year in road maintenance costs if the big trucks were allowed continued use of the interstate system north of Augusta.

If you live here, the benefits of this policy seem obvious: fewer big trucks on back roads — where they are far scarier than on the interstate — lower road repair bills and a more competitive environment for our businesses.

But if you are my mom — or U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. — such practical arguments do not matter.

“I am opposed to permitting dangerously large and heavy trucks on the nation’s highways,” Boxer said in a July 14 letter to Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii. “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. Big trucks also pose threats to America’s infrastructure, causing significantly greater fatigue and damage to roads and bridges.”

Clearly, Sen. Boxer has never encountered a large truck barreling along Route 2, barely able to stay on its side of that distressingly thin double-yellow line.

And clearly, Sen. Boxer must come from a state with an overflowing treasury and plenty of money to spend on the maintenance of secondary roads. Either that or she doesn’t fully understand how placing big trucks on small roads might actually end up costing us more.

Maybe Sen. Boxer and other opponents are making a purely emotional argument, or they want to make a simplistic appeal to voters based on thin facts and scary images.

To this day, I don’t pass big trucks on a curve when driving on the interstate. Try as we might, none of us can escape the influences of our childhood. But I’d much rather deal with these vehicles on our safest roads and know, as well, that our region is able to compete in the global economy. Sorry, Mom.

John Porter is president and CEO of the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce.

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