BANGOR, Maine — Permanently raising the weight limit of trucks on Maine’s federal interstates is not yet a dead issue, though it faces some strong opposing forces from across the country.
According to Gov. John Baldacci, U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud and Maine Department of Transportation Commissioner David Cole, the higher weight limit faces foes ranging from powerful lawmakers to road safety groups to railroad lobbyists. Regardless, they said, the situation here amounts to a no-brainer for anyone who takes the time to understand Maine’s situation.
A one-year pilot project that raised the maximum allowable weight of a big rig on a federal interstate in Maine to 100,000 pounds — 20,000 pounds more than was allowed previously — was dealt a serious blow this week when the U.S. House of Representatives didn’t extend it in a budget bill that passed Wednesday.
When the pilot project expires next week, which U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said is likely after the House vote, those trucks will be diverted to Maine’s secondary roads and through dozens of busy downtowns.
In addition, Maine will be put back at a disadvantage compared with surrounding states and Canadian provinces, all of which have a federal interstate weight limit of at least 100,000 pounds.
“It makes absolutely no sense,” said Cole. “We seem to be at the mercy of national groups, and I don’t think they understand Maine’s situation. That’s unfortunate because Maine has a very compelling case. We seem to be caught up in their national politics.”
According to Brian Parke, president and CEO of the Maine Motor Transport Association, more than 20 states have some form of exemption from the Federal Highway Administration’s limit of 80,000 pounds on federal interstates. A number of additional states whose highways were built before the highway administration existed are grandfathered with higher weight limits, he said.
Baldacci, who said he spent much of his day Friday on the telephone with leaders in the U.S. House and Senate, said truck weight limits have been debated in Washington for decades. Baldacci himself was involved in the debate when he was a congressman serving on the House Transportation Committee.
“The biggest thing is the safety people,” said Baldacci. “There are national organizations whose knee-jerk reaction is about safety. The thing I don’t think they realize is that those trucks are coming anyway and what they’re doing is tearing up our local and state roads.”
The founder of Parents Against Tired Truckers and Maine representative for the Truck Safety Coalition is Daphne Izer of Lisbon.
“We don’t think the 100,000-pound limit should be allowed anywhere,” said Izer, whose son was killed 18 years ago in an auto accident that involved a big rig. “They’re just not safe. It takes longer for them to stop, not to mention the pavement damage and damage to our roads and bridges.”
Cole rebutted those statements, saying that 100,000-pound trucks have an extra axle and set of brakes, which adds to stopping power and distributes the load more evenly on the road surface. He also said that the interstates are built to handle that weight and even more.
Michaud said numerous members of both the House and Senate are “adamantly opposed” to higher truck weight limits because they fear that giving more states exemptions will lead to an increase in the limits nationwide. In addition to safety groups, there are also business interests at play, he said.
“Quite frankly, it’s the railroads who are the most opposed to it,” Michaud said Friday. “They are concerned that they would lose money, but I do not buy that argument. Here in Maine, part of the problem is that rail transport is unreliable.”
Michaud said he is counting on the Senate to extend or make permanent the pilot project that has put the weight limit in Maine and Vermont at 100,000 pounds for the past year. He said that could be accomplished if the Senate passes an omnibus spending bill which already has been drafted and includes the higher weight limits for Maine and Vermont. Collins has said the passage of the omnibus bill is nearly impossible because of time constraints and political opposition to such a measure. Still, Michaud said he is hopeful that senators who are about to leave office would be inclined to support an omnibus bill because it would give them a chance to have earmark spending projects for their districts included in it.
A second option, said Michaud, would be to include the higher weight limits for Maine and Vermont in a deal having to do with extending the Bush-era tax cuts.
“The pilot project deals with jobs and the economy, so it fits into the tax cut bill,” said Michaud. “If neither of those things happens, then we’ll have to wait until the next Congress.”
Michaud said he was “cautiously optimistic” that some sort of deal could be worked out, but Collins, who wrote the original pilot project, was not so sure. She said in a press release Thursday that a deal was “unlikely,” a sentiment her spokesman, Kevin Kelley, echoed Friday.
“It’s very unfortunate that the House passed a continuing resolution that doesn’t include a permanent fix to Maine’s truck weight issue because it makes it exponentially harder for Senator Collins to get it into the final continuing resolution,” said Kelley. “However, Senator Collins will never give up. She will look for every possible way to get a permanent fix.”