BANGOR, Maine — A pilot program that allowed big rigs weighing up to 100,000 pounds to travel on Maine’s federal interstates for the past year is in danger after a U.S. House of Representatives vote that reduces the limit to 80,000 pounds.
Members of Maine’s congressional delegation and representatives from the trucking industry said Thursday the expiration of the program puts Maine businesses at a disadvantage compared with surrounding states and Canadian provinces.
The measure also would push more trucking traffic onto Maine’s secondary roads, which trucking representatives said is less safe and reduces the quality of life for people living on trucking routes.
Steve Whitcomb is the safety director for H.O. Bouchard of Hampden, which has about 80 trucks hauling everything from petroleum to road salt. All but two of the firm’s 150 tank trailers are designed for the 100,000-pound limit. Whitcomb said his company’s truckers only have to go back to avoiding the interstate when the program expires. He said it’s consumers who will be hurt in the long run.
“We in the world of transportation have no other choice but to say, ‘You hand us the rule book, and we’ll bring you the goods that you need under those rules,’” said Whitcomb. “It’s the citizens of Maine who are paying the prices for the lack of transportation economics that this will bring. We sit here disadvantaged, and we sit here as a state getting poorer.”
At issue is a one-year pilot program authored by U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, which allows 100,000-pound loads on the federal interstate system in Maine, namely Interstate 95 north of Augusta, I-295 in the Portland area and I-395 between Bangor and Brewer. The pilot program, which was included in the 2010 Omnibus Appropriations bill, was set to expire Dec. 18, though Collins and others in the Maine delegation have been fighting to make it permanent.
A version of a federal budget bill called a Continuing Resolution, which was passed Wednesday in the U.S. House, did not extend the pilot program. Collins said in a press release that because of time constraints and voting rules in the Senate, it is “unlikely” that the truck weights language can be restored.
“Permanently allowing the heaviest trucks to use federal interstate highways in Maine has always been one of my top priorities,” said Collins, adding that the program “has clearly provided economic, energy and environmental benefits and has made our secondary roads and many downtowns safer.”
U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, also has long supported the higher weight limits.
U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, said in a press release that he voted against the continuing resolution partly because of the truck weight issue’s impact on Maine. He said making the higher weight limit permanent here and in Vermont had the support of President Barack Obama.
“I remain hopeful that our allies in the Senate can work across the aisle to ensure that the permanent extension of Maine’s truck weight pilot program is included in the final bill,” he said. “I’ve weighed in with Senate Republican and Democratic leaders, and I encourage Maine and Vermont’s entire delegations to do the same. This might be the last chance for this to pass.”
Willy Ritch, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, said Pingree voted in favor of the Continuing Resolution because it was needed to continue important programs and services. Despite her vote, Ritch said, Pingree is a strong supporter of the higher weight limits and is hopeful that the Senate can create an omni-bus bill that makes the pilot project permanent.
According to Whitcomb and others, 100,000-pound loads are allowed on federal interstates in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island as well as the Canadian provinces. Before Collins’ bill, the weight limit on Maine’s federal interstates had been 80,000 pounds for at least 28 years.
Whitcomb said the hardest-hit roads in Maine would be Route 9/202 between Augusta and Bangor and stretches of Route 1 through the midcoast and north.
Brian Parke, president and CEO of the Maine Motor Transport Association, said expiration of the higher weight limits would, among other things, affect the cost of delivering petroleum products from Portland north because truckers won’t be able to use I-295. In northern areas, agriculture and forest products will be affected.
“It’s a huge deal,” said Parke. “It’s not only meaningful for the economy within our state; we’re at a regional disadvantage. A 100,000-pound truck isn’t longer, higher or wider. It’s just more productive.”
According to Collins, who cited a recent study by the Maine Department of Transportation, a trip from Hampden to Houlton on Interstate 95 saves 50 minutes of driving time as opposed to using Route 2 and avoids more than 270 intersections and nine school crossings.
Keith Van Scotter, CEO of Lincoln Paper and Tissue in Lincoln, said the restriction will affect the mill because most of the pulp trucks coming in and paper trucks going out will be affected.
“If this program lapses, we’re going to have to go back to driving where we can put more on the trucks or we’re going to be forced to underload our trucks,” he said. “Having to go back to 80,000 pounds probably increases our fuel costs on freight by 25 percent. It’s a big deal.”
The pilot program wasn’t without its opponents. Among them is Daphne Izer of Lisbon, who founded Parents Against Tired Truckers and is now Maine’s representative for the Truck Safety Coalition. In a recent press release, she criticized state government for failing to release information related to the DOT’s study on Collins’ pilot project.
“As a citizen of Maine, a taxpayer, and a mother whose son was needlessly killed in a truck crash, I am outraged that my state government officials may be putting special interests before the safety of innocent motorists,” she said. “Maine families like mine have a fundamental right to know if trucking interests collaborated and conspired with state officials in writing this report.”
Izer could not be reached Thursday evening for comment.