AUGUSTA, Maine — Drivers who make the long, straight and often solitary 100-or-so-mile haul between Old Town and Houlton may be able to set the cruise control at 75 without fear of seeing blue lights under a bill that took a first step toward passage on Thursday.
A legislative committee voted unanimously to endorse a measure, LD 1557, that would allow the state’s transportation commissioner to bump up the speed limit on Maine’s northernmost stretch of Interstate 95 from 65 mph to 75 mph. The bill also would allow the commissioner the discretion to keep the 65 mph limit in stretches of the highway for safety reasons.
Rep. Alexander Willette, R-Mapleton, said the reality is many people already drive faster than 65 mph on this part of interstate with only a few exits and not many other cars. The issue came up time and time again as he knocked on doors during his campaign in the fall, Willette said.
“Probably about one in 10 people would say, ‘When are we going to be able to legally drive 75 on the highway?’” Willette told members of the Transportation Committee.
Rep. Charles Kenneth Theriault, D-Madawaska, said allowing drivers to legally cruise at 75 mph would also help businesses move goods faster and tourists reach their destinations more quickly.
A 1999 Maine Department of Transportation study of speeds between Old Town and Houlton showed that, regardless of what the law may say, most drivers already are driving up to 75 mph.
For that reason, the DOT supported giving the commissioner the ability to set the speed limit at 75 mph.
“The motorists on this section of I-95 are traveling at speeds at which they feel comfortable regardless of the posted speed limit,” Nina Fisher, the DOT’s legislative liaison, said in testimony to the committee. “Past data has proven that a driver’s level of comfort does not increase as a function of posted speed limit but as a function of the drivability of the road.”
The administration of Gov. Paul LePage also testified in support of the measure, arguing it could help boost economic development. No one from the Maine Department of Public Safety or any other law enforcement agencies testified on the bill.
Under federal law, states are given considerable discretion to set speed limits on interstate highways, although that was not always the case. Between 1959 and 1973, the maximum speed on I-95 was 70 mph but then the federal government capped it at 55 mph.
A 1995 federal act handed back to the states the authority to set and enforce speed limits on interstates. Fisher said the Federal Highway Administration has notified Maine that the state would not face any penalties — financial or otherwise — for increasing the speed limit between Old Town and Houlton.
At one point during Thursday’s hearing, Rep. Peter Rioux, R-Winterport, asked supporters whether motorists will drive 84 mph if the speed limit is bumped up to 75 the same way many now drive 74 mph. Willette replied that driving 76 mph or faster could allow police to pull over a driver.
Rioux also asked Fisher whether increasing the speed limit could lead to additional vehicle-animal collisions on a stretch of rural interstate that has seen multiple collisions — including several fatal car-moose collisions — in recent years.
“Logically, I don’t think you would see higher crash rates with animals because people are already driving at this speed,” Fisher said.
The bill now goes to the House and Senate for consideration.