Most Mainers can recall horrible accidents involving the logging trucks and other tractor trailers that are forced by an outmoded law to traverse city streets and narrow, curving rural roads. Maine’s congressional delegation, led by Sen. Susan Collins, recently scored a good start on getting the big trucks back onto the interstate highways where they belong.
A new legislative drive to remedy the matter was spurred, in part, by two needless deaths in the Bangor area. In 2006, 80-year-old Lena Gray was struck and killed by a tractor-trailer fuel truck when she tried to cross the street near the intersection of Broadway and State Street. A year later, 17-year-old Susan Abraham died after the car she was driving collided with a loaded big rig on a road in Hampden.
Republican Sen. Collins and Democratic Sen. Pat Leahy of Vermont teamed up to insert a provision in a funding bill that would permanently allow the heaviest trucks to travel on federal interstates instead of forcing them off the highways and onto downtown streets and secondary roads in Maine and Vermont. Sen. Collins had led in getting a one-year trial allowing the heavier trucks to use all Maine’s interstates. It lapsed in December.
Sen. Collins cited data from the Maine Department of Transportation that showed crashes involving trucks decreased by 72 during the pilot program, compared to the average number of crashes over the previous five years.
The Senate Appropriations Committee approved the bill including the Collins-Leahy provision on Friday. The next step will be approval by the full Senate, expected sometime in the next few weeks. Action by the unpredictable House remains in doubt.
The House version of the funding bill does not include similar language. Sen. Collins, as the senior Republican on the Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee, will be in a position to fight to keep the provision in the merged Senate-House bill.
The provision would not increase the size or weight of trucks. Maine law allows trucks up to 100,000 pounds to operate on state and municipal roads. These heavy trucks can now operate on 22,500 miles of noninterstate roads in Maine, plus 167 miles of the Maine Turnpike. The 260 miles of non-Turnpike interstates, including I-95 and I-395, however, are limited to vehicles under 80,000 pounds.
Such restrictions do not apply in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York and nearby Canadian provinces, putting Maine at an economic and safety disadvantage.
More thorough studies have found that the larger trucks belong on interstate highways. A 2005 report by The Road Information Program, a national transportation research group, found that 81 percent of traffic deaths occurred on rural roads in Maine from 1999 to 2003, although only 52 percent of the travel in the state is on these roads.
A study conducted by Wilbur Smith Associates, an international infrastructure consulting firm with an office in Portland, found that the fatal crash rate on “diversion routes,” mainly two-lane undivided highways, was 10 times higher than the Maine Turnpike and interstate routes, based on miles traveled.
It also found that between $1.7 million and $2.3 million a year in pavement and bridge repair costs could be avoided on the diversion routes if larger trucks are moved to the interstate.
Olympia Snowe, Maine’s other Republican senator and a member of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, supports the budget provision. She also has proposed a bill that would allow six-axle trucks weighing up to 100,000 pounds on all interstate highways in the state. Her measure would let states bypass Congress and seek individual waivers of the interstate restrictions.
Reps. Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree, both Democrats, support the move to get the heavy trucks onto the interstates. Mr. Michaud has a bill to that effect with 54 co-sponsors including Rep. Pingree.
Cooperative bipartisan action like this can help to offset the gridlock and bitter partisan fights that have given Congress a bad name. Plus, on this issue, making the change simply makes sense from an economic, environmental and safety perspective.