Susan Collins describes struggle for law to allow heavy trucks on highways

Sen. Susan Collins at the University of Maine on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2012.
Michael Mardosa
Sen. Susan Collins at the University of Maine on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2012.
Posted Jan. 03, 2012, at 6:56 p.m.
Sen. Susan Collins speaks at the University of Maine on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2012.
Michael Mardosa
Sen. Susan Collins speaks at the University of Maine on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2012.

ORONO, Maine — It wasn’t easy, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins said Tuesday, but she finally won out. For the next two decades, trucks weighing 100,000 pounds will be allowed on Maine’s interstate highways.

Collins, a Republican, recounted the negotiations that led to the passage of truck weight legislation during a gathering of community and industry leaders at the University of Maine on Tuesday to congratulate her on her successful push to move heavy big rigs off Maine’s secondary roads.

Congress passed the bill Nov. 17 after gaining approval from the Senate and — after a long, late meeting that ironed out a deal — the House of Representatives.

The law change has been a goal of Collins’ for more than a decade. She said her efforts finally came to fruition during a “difficult” bipartisan meeting between her, another senator and two members of the House.

At the time of the meeting, the House had no provisions in its version of the bill to alter Maine’s truck weight limit.

Collins wanted a permanent increase. The House wanted to keep the truck weights issue out of the bill because it couldn’t back policy changes within a funding bill, the two House conferees argued.

After a lengthy debate during which Collins presented charts, maps, statistics, a stack of letters from law enforcement agencies, Maine residents and other groups, as well as a list of items already within the House funding bill that resulted in policy changes, the House conferees finally broke.

“Susan, if I finally agree to your position,” Collins quoted one of the conferees as saying, “would you please stop giving me more letters and charts on truck weights?”

More debate followed on how long the law change would last. The House members called for a one-year extension. Collins kept pressing for a permanent increase.

“Finally, the two House conferees literally threw up their hands and said, ‘Fine, 20 years!’” Collins said.

Collins’ efforts drew praise from those gathered at the University of Maine.

“The lady that we honor today is one of the most respected and trusted people in Washington, D.C.,” said Peter Vigue, chairman and CEO of Cianbro. “When she speaks, they listen, because she doesn’t mince words, she doesn’t play head games. She simply does the right things for the people of this state.”

Brewer, Bangor, Orono, Mobilize Eastern Maine and other groups presented Collins with awards, certificates and letters of appreciation for her efforts.

Public safety agencies, town and city officials, the wood products industry and business owners widely supported Collins’ bill, arguing that increasing the truck weight limit would make secondary roads safer and longer-lasting, decrease traffic in cities and towns, cut carbon emissions and help companies move more goods while using fewer resources.

Collins noted that a big truck traveling from Hampden to Houlton on I-95 rather than U.S. Route 2 would avoid 300 intersections, 86 crosswalks, 30 traffic lights, nine school crossings and four railroad crossings.

The bill met little opposition in Maine, Collins said, but some national groups stepped into the fray to oppose the effort, arguing the change in weight limits doesn’t make the roads any safer.

The Virginia-based Truck Safety Coalition — representing a partnership between Citizens for Reliable And Safe Highways and Parents Against Tired Truckers, founded by Maine resident Daphne Izer — has long argued that six-axle trucks are too dangerous to be on the roads.

The group contends that the allowance of 100,000-pound trucks encourages more widespread use of the larger vehicles, citing an increase by 100 percent of the number of permits sought for 99,000-pound trucks in Vermont in 2010, when that state also implemented a one-year federal pilot for the heavy trucks.

“These are likely the same people who underestimate the persistence of an Aroostook County gal,” said Jim McCurdy, chairman of the Maine Motor Transport Association. He credited Collins with being “unfailingly tenacious” in her pursuit of the change in law.

Maine business leaders and public safety officials encouraged Collins to find a way to get the bill through Congress — and quickly.

As she worked to broker a deal in November, Vigue decided to up the ante by betting his paycheck that Collins would work out a deal by Thanksgiving. He made the bet during a transportation conference in Bangor just one week before the holiday.

“Talk about pressure,” Collins said Tuesday.

Collins met the deadline. She credited the information, data and support provided by many of those present at Tuesday’s meeting with helping her get the job done.

The senator argued that the push to broker a truck weights deal was a prime example of what needs to happen more often in Washington — cooperation.

During a meeting of the Bangor Rotary Club on Tuesday afternoon at Bangor Theological Seminary, Collins recounted her successes from the past year. Most important, she said, were the removal of the truck weights limit, the defeat of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s effort to limit the potato to a once-per-week item on school lunch menus, and the introduction of the Bipartisan Jobs Creation Act with Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.

That bill would expand the 2 percent payroll tax cut for workers to employers on the first $10 million of payroll. Second, it would invest in fixing the nation’s crumbling infrastructure. Third, it would require federal agencies to analyze the cost and benefits of proposed regulations. Fourth, it would improve and create federal job training programs.

McCaskill and Collins also have agreed that a 2 percent surtax on Americans who make more than $1 million annually would be a good step toward stemming the climb of the nation’s $15 trillion debt. Small businesses would be exempt from that tax, she said.

“Americans are frustrated that our nation’s unemployment rate remains unacceptably high,” Collins said to the Rotarians. “They are frustrated that people who want work can’t find good jobs. But most damaging is the frustration that Washington can’t seem to set aside partisan bickering long enough to agree on a plan to spur job creation and boost our economy.”

BDN writer Seth Koenig contributed to this report.

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