February 13, 2011

Heavy-truck highway access a priority for D.C. delegation

China residents want roadway giants off their local roads

By Jonathan Riskind jriskind@mainetoday.com
Washington Bureau Chief

CHINA — At the China Dine-ah last week, Christine Rancourt winced when asked about the massive trucks whizzing down U.S. Route 202, through her small town and past her daughter's elementary school.

click image to enlarge

China Town Manager Dan L’Heureux stands along Route 202 recently as a truck passes. L’Heureux said he and others are concerned about increased heavy truck traffic on local roads.

Staff photo by David Leaming

For a year, the big rigs were largely absent from the narrow, winding, two-lane road through her central Maine town of 4,600 people. They instead stayed on the interstates, where the Maine congressional delegation — and many other Mainers — say they belong.

In mid-December, the federal pilot program that had allowed trucks weighing more than 80,000 pounds and up to 100,000 pounds to Maine's interstates lapsed. Once again, the heavier trucks are allowed on the Maine Turnpike only from Kittery to Augusta. They are banned on the rest of I-95, and interstates 195, 295 and 395.

That means the trucks, carrying goods such as paper, potatoes and logs, must take side roads near I-95 such as U.S. 202/Route 9 through China, on their way to and from other parts of Maine and Canada.

"I'm not happy with it," Rancourt said of the return of the big trucks. "I notice a big difference."

Rancourt's friend, fellow mother and lunch partner Catherine Basham agreed, saying, "I think everybody does."

The Maine congressional delegation says it will wage a bipartisan effort this year to pass legislation letting the trucks back on all the interstates.

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, was the author of the pilot program and fought to extend it in the Senate last year. U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, also supports the program.

U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-2nd District, whose central and northern Maine district is primarily where the big trucks are forced off the interstate, fought unsuccessfully in the House last year to extend the pilot program or permanently allow the big rigs on all Maine interstates.

Maine's other House member, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, is "generally in favor" of letting the heavier trucks on the interstate, her spokesman said.

The pilot program was mostly the victim, its proponents say, of legislative chaos about an end-of-the-year spending bill. After intense legislative wrangling, Congress passed a short-term bill funding the federal government through March 4 and didn't include separate items such as the truck-weight exemption.

Collins introduced a bill last month to move the heavier trucks back to the interstate highways permanently, and says this is her top legislative priority for the year. Collins has partnered with Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, whose state also wants an exemption to allow heavier trucks on its interstates.

Not everyone thinks trucks up to 100,000 pounds belong on Maine's interstates, however, or any other state roads, for that matter.

Steve Cartwright, a writer and Waldoboro selectman, said he is one of those who is against heavier trucks on any roads, saying a sounder transportation policy would include less emphasis on trucks and more on rail.

"I would like to ... get people to take a step back and see a bigger picture of what is good for our environment and what is good for our roads, too," Cartwright said.

The railroad industry agrees, saying heavier trucks damage highways and bridges, cause highway traffic problems and harm the environment.

Michaud said there is another reason the railroad industry objects: the desire to squelch competition.

Railroads "have a strong lobby and they are opposed to it," Michaud said. "Even though Maine and Vermont are small states, they are concerned about a ripple effect in other states if we get" the exemption.

Michaud plans to re-introduce bipartisan legislation, co-authored with GOP Rep. Jean Schmidt of Ohio, allowing states such as Maine to "opt in" to higher truck weights on the interstates, but not forcing any states to do so.

(Continued on page 2)

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