ETNA, Maine — A year ago, when a pilot project started that allowed the biggest big rigs to travel on Interstate 95 instead of past Bob Wing’s house on Route 2, the Etna man noticed a big difference.
“There was a big drop in truck traffic,” he said. “We definitely noticed it.”
But that pilot project ended at midnight Friday after encountering stiff opposition in Congress, meaning that trucks that weigh more than 80,000 total pounds no longer are allowed on I-95, I-295 and I-395. Weighing up to 100,000 pounds, they’re now required to use secondary roads. Route 2, which runs parallel to I-95 between Newport and Bangor, is expected to be one of the state’s hardest-hit roads, according to the Maine Department of Transportation.
Wing, whose own son is a truck driver, said there are lots of reasons the trucks should be on I-95, but he said the most important ones involve safety.
“The interstate is built better than Route 2,” he said. “The trucks are safer there.”
As Congress struggles to wrap up its session before Christmas, there is little hope that the higher weight limits will be restored, according to U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, author of the original pilot project. In recent weeks, the extension of the truck weight pilot program has been on-again, off-again, finally meeting its demise last week with the failure of an omnibus spending bill.
Government and trucking officials have fought for the program in an effort to put Maine on equal footing with surrounding states and Canadian provinces, all of which have weight limits of at least 100,000 pounds. For those who live along Route 2, however, the issue strikes closer to home — literally.
“That just doesn’t make any sense,” said Leslie Harris of Abraham’s Goat Farm on Route 2 in Newport, when asked about the situation. “Maine needs commerce, but I don’t appreciate those trucks going by so fast.”
When first approached by a reporter Monday afternoon, Harris said she hadn’t noticed an increase in truck traffic. In the next five minutes, though, three logging trucks — each with three sets of trailer wheels, which means they’re designed to carry 100,000 pounds — rumbled by the farm.
“I guess there are a lot of trucks today,” she said. “I hadn’t been paying attention, but now I will.”
Martha Parlee, an employee of Etna Village Variety on Route 2, said she worries about safety. The store is situated on a downhill slope at an intersection. Just west of the store, the road goes uphill again. Parlee said some truckers try to gain speed for the uphill as they pass the store.
“It’s been quite a problem,” she said. “They’re going to devastate this road. It’s going to cost taxpayers some money and it’s going to take some lives.”
Roland Ryan of Brooks, a former trucker and one of the guys socializing at a table in the store Monday, said the truck weights issue has been discussed at length among locals.
“They go so fast past here,” he said. “The speed limit at the bottom of the hill is 40 miles per hour.”
Newport Police Chief Leonard Macdaid said he’d like to see the trucks take I-95 not only for safety, but because he fears they’ll ruin Route 2 and the state won’t have the money to fix it.
“We’d definitely like to see the trucks on the interstate,” he said.
According to data compiled recently by the Maine Department of Transportation, preliminary indications are that the truck weight pilot program made Maine roads safer. Duane Brunell of the DOT’s safety office compared 2010 with the average over the past five years. Brunell cautioned that his data for 2010 are about 80 percent complete and the overall analysis might be skewed for other reasons, including that there may have been less truck traffic overall lately because of the slack economy. Still, when comparing 2010 crashes involving six-axle trucks to the five-year average between 2005 and 2009, the numbers for 2010 are clearly lower though there are still approximately two months of data left to add to the formula.
Brunell’s analysis counted any accident that resulted in either $1,000 of property damage or a reportable injury, or both. The data showed the following:
• On Maine’s federal interstates, which do not include the Maine Turnpike, there were 18 crashes in the first 10 months of 2010, compared to a previous five-year average of almost 24.
• On principal arterials, such as Route 2, there were 53 crashes in the first 10 months of 2010, compared to a previous five-year average of about 79.
• On minor arterials, which include many state roads, there were 41 crashes in the first 10 months of 2010. The previous five-year average was almost 59.
• On major and minor urban collector roads, as well as local roads, there were similar sharp decreases in 2010 compared to the previous five-year averages.
“I think it’s a bit premature to draw too many conclusions,” said Brunell. “It looks like at worst the interstate system will hold its own and that there has been a significant decrease on the other road classes. Nothing we’re seeing in the data at this juncture are surprises. As time goes on we’ll continue to monitor the situation.”