Bill would let transportation chief raise I-295 speed limit to 75 mph

In this Nov. 18, 2011 photo, a heavy truck travels north on Route 1, alongside Interstate 295, in Yarmouth, Maine.
In this Nov. 18, 2011 photo, a heavy truck travels north on Route 1, alongside Interstate 295, in Yarmouth, Maine.
Posted March 15, 2013, at 12:21 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Motorists would be able to drive legally at 75 on Interstate 295 if Maine’s transportation commissioner deems it appropriate under a bill introduced Friday by a Saco lawmaker.

Rep. Justin Chenette’s bill, LD 654, would authorize the transportation commissioner to increase the speed limit, now 65, to 75 mph on I-295, which runs from Scarborough to West Gardiner. Chenette’s bill comes two years after lawmakers allowed the speed limit on I-95 between Old Town and Houlton to rise to 75 mph. That speed limit change took effect in the fall of 2011.

A public hearing on the I-295 bill Friday before the Legislature’s Transportation Committee attracted opposition from AAA Northern New England. Officials from the state Department of Transportation didn’t take a position on the measure.

Chenette, a Democrat, said passing the bill wouldn’t mean an automatic speed limit increase on Maine’s highways. The speed limit would change only after the transportation commissioner and engineering staff at the Department of Transportation determine it’s safe to raise the speed limit on a stretch of highway, he said.

“There will not be arbitrary speed increases without proper vetting,” Chenette said in testimony before the Transportation Committee.

He cited U.S. Department of Transportation research from 1992 that found a 6.7 percent decrease in the number of crashes at 41 experimental sites where speed limits were increased and a 5.4 percent increase at 58 sites where the speed limit dropped. The research also showed vehicle traveling speeds changed little when the speed limits were changed.

Pat Moody, public affairs manager for AAA Northern New England, said raising the speed limit on I-295 would pose safety hazards. Speed is a factor in 42 percent of highway fatalities on Maine highways, he said, citing Department of Transportation data.

“At the current maximum speed limit, this corridor experiences significant congestions and is a safety concern,” Moody wrote in testimony delivered to lawmakers. “Raising the limit would adversely affect highway safety for the motorists of Maine.”

While the state Department of Transportation didn’t take a position on the bill, Nina Fisher, the department’s legislative liaison, suggested the bill be changed to allow the transportation commissioner to raise speed limits to 75 mph on all interstate highways in Maine, rather than selected segments. Chenette said he supported that change.

“Should the Legislature enact LD 654, engineering science and safety will determine whether or not the commissioner chooses to exercise his newly granted authority,” Fisher told legislators.

The transportation commissioner does not have authority to set speed limits on the Maine Turnpike.

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