Safety, naturally, must be part of the discussion of whether Maine will be allowed to conduct a pilot project allowing 100,000-pounds trucks on the Interstate. That discussion, however, should be based on reality, not scare tactics.
Earlier this year, Sen. Susan Collins proposed a one-year test to evaluate the pros and cons of allowing the heavier trucks to use I-95. It has been approved by the Senate Appropriation Committee.
Currently, trucks weighing more than 80,000 pounds are barred from I-95 north of Augusta. As a result, trucks that weigh between 80,000 and 100,000 pounds are forced to travel local highways, through downtowns like Bangor, for destinations east and north. Those heavy trucks trying to negotiate stop signs and tight turns is clearly a safety threat to pedestrians and drivers of passenger vehicles.
Last week, highway safety advocates wrote senators urging them to vote against the pilot project because it would increase deaths and cause more road and bridge damage.
As for the safety claim, there is plenty of evidence that rural, two-lane roads are more dangerous than interstate highways, which are straighter and separate traffic bound in opposite directions. A study, conducted by Wilbur Smith Associates, an international infrastructure consulting firm, found that the fatal crash rate on “diversion routes,” the largely two-lane undivided highways heavy trucks are now forced to travel, was 10 times higher than the Maine Turnpike and interstate routes, based on miles traveled.
According to a 2005 report released by The Road Information Program (TRIP), a national transportation research group, 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 National Academy of Sciences panel criticized the current patchwork system of highway weight standards. “Freight traffic is bypassing Interstate highways, the safest and most efficient roads, to use secondary roads where limits are less restrictive, but the costs generated by that traffic are higher,” the group said.
To the second point — damage to bridges and roads — the academy suggested that truck weights could safely be raised but that user fees be assessed to cover the increased cost of road and bridge maintenance. Concerns about wear and tear are valid, but can be addressed through the pilot project. A good study would answer some important questions such as: How much damage is being done to I-95 by the big rigs? How does their absence from local roads affect the wear and tear there? And less quantifiable, but also important, do businesses benefit from having goods move to and from markets more quickly by using the interstate highway system?
Opponents of an increased truck weight limit also argue that such a change would harm rail transportation. Maine’s railroads surely needs a boost, but keeping the current restrictions on trucks in no way guarantees this will happen.
Allowing Maine to follow the same rules as its neighbors while assessing safety data to allay concerns is a prudent approach worthy of broad support.