U.S. Sen. Susan Collins says she might have salvaged a pilot program deemed vital to the state’s trucking and forest products industries because it allows trucks weighing as much as 100,000 pounds onto Maine’s interstate highways.
Her actions don’t make it a done deal, but Collins, R-Maine, announced Tuesday that she had persuaded fellow Senate Appropriations Committee members to support a one-year extension of the program as part of a FY 2011 Omnibus Appropriations bill, a crucial step toward its getting Senate approval later this week.
“The pilot project I secured last year has clearly provided economic, energy and environmental benefits and has made our secondary roads and many downtowns safer,” Collins said in a statement Tuesday. “I am delighted that my colleagues on the [committee] recognize the importance of extending this successful pilot project.”
If the measure passes the Senate, the House of Representatives will consider the omnibus bill sometime next week. Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud said he expects it to pass.
“It got through the House before,” the 2nd District congressman said Tuesday. “It’s very important to the entire Maine delegation. It definitely will go through.”
House leaders didn’t take up the truck weights program last week, Michaud said, because they had assurances from Senate leaders that the program would be included in the omnibus bill.
Dan White, president of Prentiss & Carlisle, a Bangor forest products company that annually harvests and hauls an estimated 450,000 cords of wood — or about 2.33 billion pounds — from more than 1 million acres it manages in eight northern Maine counties, said the program’s renewal would be a huge boost to many Maine industries.
He praised Collins for her efforts.
“It is such a big deal to us in the forest products industry because we haul more weight across the road than anybody else,” White said Tuesday. “We have a senator that has really been covering our butts. She has been tireless.”
If the program is extended, White said, it would reduce the company’s hauling by about 5,500 loads next year. He could not immediately provide an estimate of how much money that would save his company, as not all of those loads go on interstate highways, though the savings, he said, would be substantial.
As authored by Collins, the program allows 100,000-pound loads on the federal interstate system in Maine — Interstate 95 north of Augusta, I-295 in the Portland area and I-395 between Bangor and Brewer. The program is set to expire Dec. 18, though Maine’s congressional delegation is fighting to make it permanent.
Yet the program has some powerful enemies in the House and Senate who oppose it because they fear excessive wear on interstate roads and safety hazards posed by the trucks’ increased weight. Michaud said that if the program passes the Senate, its opponents won’t have much if any chance of stripping it from the House bill.
Reacting to Collins’ press release announcing the victory, Bangor City Engineer Jim Ring and Bangor Police Chief Ron Gastia said they felt the 100,000-pound trucks were a hazard on local roads and much safer on the interstates.
Local roads “are built for lower-volume, lower-speed traffic,” Ring said. “They would typically have 4 inches of pavement and a couple feet of gravel. The interstate roads are three times the strength of that. They are designed for heavy loads.”
Traffic congestion and other hazards have decreased since the trucks have been allowed on interstate roads, Gastia said.