After years of advocacy by members of Maine’s congressional delegation, the U.S. House on Thursday afternoon passed by a 298-121 vote a transportation bill carrying provisions that will allow trucks weighing up to 100,000 pounds on all interstate highways in Maine for the next 20 years.

The Senate approved the bill with a 70-30 vote Thursday night.

“This is a major accomplishment and I am delighted to have successfully negotiated this agreement. Moving these trucks from our downtown streets and onto the federal interstates where they belong has always been one of my top transportation priorities,” Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said after the vote. “The agreement that I negotiated to allow the heaviest trucks on the highway for the next 20 years will help shippers, truckers, and Maine’s job creators. More important, it will improve safety for Mainers who live, work, and go to school along the secondary roads, and busy downtowns where these trucks are currently forced to travel.”

The higher weight limit goes into effect as soon as President Barack Obama signs the bill, which is expected Friday.

“Mainers already know the benefits of this common sense provision,” said Maine’s Democratic 2nd District Rep. Mike Michaud in a statement Thursday. “Letting heavier trucks use the interstate reduces fuel consumption, cuts emissions, reduces travel times and reduces the competitive disadvantage between Maine and our neighbors.”

Michaud said he already is forging plans to allow the increased weight limit to become permanent. Michaud will propose language in a forthcoming highways bill that would in part empower Maine’s state Legislature to throw out the previous 80,000-pound cap permanently.

The 20-year deal passed on Thursday, brokered by Sen. Susan Collins, comes on the heels of a one-year pilot allowance that expired nearly 11 months ago. The two-decade provision was included in the Senate version of the transportation bill but not initially in the House’s take.

The language ultimately was included in the final version drafted in negotiations between the two chambers to reconcile differences.

Proponents of a higher weight limit argue the 80,000-pound cap hurts Maine businesses, who are surrounded by states and Canadian provinces that allow the heavier trucks.

The issue of truck weight limits has been on Collins’ agenda for more than a decade, the senator has said. Prohibiting the larger trucks from traveling on Interstate 95 north of Augusta, I-295 and I-395 has forced the vehicles onto winding and narrow downtown streets, often through populated areas.

“Moving these trucks from our downtown streets and onto the federal interstates where they belong has always been one of my top transportation priorities,” said Collins in a statement.

Collins told the Bangor Daily News previously a big truck traveling from Hampden to Houlton on I-95 rather than Route 2 would avoid 300 intersections, 86 crosswalks, 30 traffic lights, nine school crossings and four railroad crossings.

The senator also has cited Maine Department of Transportation data in support of the bill, which showed crashes involving trucks decreased by 72 during the aforementioned one-year pilot program compared with the average number of crashes over the previous five years.

The increased weight limits have received broad support from organizations such as the Maine State Police, the State Troopers Association, the Maine Department of Public Safety, the Chiefs of Police, the Parent Teacher Association and the Bangor School Department, with particular enthusiasm voiced by the Maine Motor Transport Association.

“We’re extremely pleased and we’re grateful to Sen. Collins and the rest of the delegation,” Tim Doyle, vice president of the association, told the Bangor Daily News. “This is something Maine Motor has advocated for for nearly 30 years now. Our No. 1 reason for seeking this change has been safety. We think this makes all of Maine’s roads safer, and it also has environmental and economic benefits for Maine as well.

“We’ve had the support of many business organizations, safety groups, legislators and governors current and past,” he continued. “It’s been a long time coming, but it’s well worth it. There have been very few people who have been opposed to this. Almost nobody in Maine.”

Some organizations are fighting assertions the change in truck limits makes the roads safer.

The Virginia-based Truck Safety Coalition — representing a partnership between Citizens for a 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 argued the allowance of 100,000-pound trucks encouraged more widespread use of the larger vehicles, citing an increase by 100 percent 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.

Before Thursday’s vote Collins told the Bangor Daily News in a telephone interview that documents of support for the provision she collected from numerous Maine law enforcement and safety organizations helped her rebut arguments on Capitol Hill that relaxing the weight cap would be a safety hazard.

“The pilot project I successfully got through laid the foundation for this success, because although we only had data for one year, we found it made a lot of sense for public safety reasons to get these trucks off of residential streets and onto the interstate highways,” Collins said.

Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.