BANGOR — U.S. Sen. Susan Collins said her top priority when Congress resumes work next week will be to make permanent a recently expired pilot project that allowed heavy trucks to travel on Maine’s interstate.
Collins and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., will sponsor legislation that Maine’s junior senator said would improve safety and level the economic playing field for trucking companies trying to stay alive.
“It has been a frustrating experience trying to get this legislation through,” Collins said after announcing her legislative intentions to a group of city and state officials, as well as trucking industry representatives, gathered at the Bangor Police Department.
Members of Maine’s congressional delegation have worked for years to increase the truck weight limit on Interstate 95 north of Augusta from 80,000 pounds to 100,000 pounds. New Hampshire and Massachusetts have successfully lobbied for exemptions to the federal law, but Maine has not had much luck.
“This disparity for certain states simply makes no sense and puts them at an economic disadvantage,” she explained.
The most recent glimmer of hope for change was a pilot project spearheaded by Collins that increased truck weight limits in Maine for one year. That pilot project, the senator said, demonstrated beyond a doubt the common-sense benefits of keeping trucks on Interstate 95 including improved safety, lowered costs, less energy use and decreased air emissions.
Despite dogged efforts to keep it going, the pilot project expired Dec. 17, much to the dismay of public safety officials across Maine.
During the pilot project, the pros and cons were studied. Collins said her favorite example drew comparisons between a truck traveling on U.S. Route 2 versus one traveling on Interstate 95 from Hampden to Houlton. First, the interstate would save the trucker 50 minutes and an estimated $30 in fuel costs. Second, the truck trav-eling on secondary roads would encounter nine school crossings, 30 traffic lights and 86 crosswalks.
“We recognize that trucks of this size do not belong on Maine’s city streets and secondary roads. We have seen firsthand the tragedy that can come when heavy trucks are allowed on these streets,” Bangor Police Chief Ron Gastia said, referring to the 2008 death of an elderly woman who was walking near downtown when she was struck by a dump truck.
Brian Parke, president of the Maine Motor Transport Association, praised Collins for her persistence on truck weights.
“Interstates are statistically proven to be the safer roads for all vehicles, not just trucks,” he said. “Businesses are continually looking for ways to improve efficiency on inbound and outbound freight. They can’t compete with other areas that have lesser restrictions.”
Keith Van Scotter, president and CEO of Lincoln Paper and Tissue, said his business suffers.
“We are a business that has no customer in the state of Maine. Our average destination is 800 miles,” he said.
Increasing the truck weight limit from 80,000 to 100,000 pounds “would be like moving our plant 200 miles closer to our market,” Van Scotter added.
Doug Hazelett, town manager of Houlton, said the economic considerations are not limited to businesses. Municipalities and their taxpayers often bear the cost of fixing wear and tear on secondary roads that is caused by heavy truck traffic.
Despite widespread support across Maine, easing the federal truck weight limits has considerable opposition from national highway safety groups and the powerful railroad industry lobby.
Daphne Izer of Lisbon, founder of the Maine-based Parents Against Tired Truckers and an outspoken critic of higher weight limits on all Maine roads, reacted with dismay Tuesday to Collins’ announcement. She said complaints about the safety of 100,000-pound trucks on Maine’s secondary roads prove what she’s been saying for years.
“The bottom line is that the federal law is 80,000 pounds on interstates,” said Izer. “If those trucks are too dangerous to be on local roads, they’re too dangerous for the interstate.”
Izer also argued that the heavier trucks will accelerate road wear at a time when the state can’t afford road maintenance.
“We as taxpayers are going to pay for it,” she said.
Collins said her bill has the support of President Barack Obama and his administration. Historically, it has failed to earn support in the U.S. House, despite the efforts of 2nd District Rep. Michael Michaud, who supports raising the limit on truck weights.
Michaud spokesman Ed Gilman said the congressman plans to introduce a bill in the House that would allow states to opt in or out of the federal weight restrictions.
BDN writer Christopher Cousins contributed to this story