Traffic merges onto Interstate 295 north from Baxter Boulevard in Portland recently. Under the bill pending before the Legislature's Transportation Committee, the state could increase the interstate's speed limit following engineering and safety reviews.
AUGUSTA — The trip from Portland to Augusta could get a few minutes shorter if a bill allowing speed limits to rise on Interstate 295 passes this spring.
The proposal by state Rep. Justin Chenette, D-Saco, would authorize the transportation commissioner to raise the limit to 75 mph on parts of I-295 where it's deemed safe.
Chenette said the measure is a follow-up to a bill that last year raised the speed limit from 65 mph to 75 mph on I-95 from Old Town to Houlton.
Chenette said that decision prompted him to think about other areas where the limit might be raised safely, "more so than me wanting to faster. There's always a section of Maine road where you think, 'Why is the speed limit so low?' "
The legislation wouldn't apply to the Maine Turnpike, where the turnpike authority determines speed limits.
Chenette said the bill wouldn't require any speed limits to be raised, but would allow it where state officials say it could be done safely.
He said it almost certainly would not be raised on I-295 in Portland, where the speed limit is 50 mph because heavy traffic and many on- and off-ramps make it more treacherous to drive faster.
Chenette said the expectation might be that higher speeds would mean more accidents and highway fatalities but studies suggest that a lack of uniform speeds -- where one driver goes much slower than the others, forcing drivers to slow down or try to pass -- is a greater factor in accidents.
Chenette said drivers would burn more fuel at higher speeds. "I don't want to sugar-coat that."
Another lawmaker said he's cool to the idea of raising speed limits.
Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, a former police officer and Cumberland County sheriff, said traffic is too heavy on I-295 to warrant higher speed limits.
"It may make engineering sense from Old Town to Houlton," he said, "but 295 has too much traffic."
On the drive to Augusta, even relatively early in the morning, "there are many times when both lanes of 295 are almost bumper-to-bumper," he said.
Higher speeds reduce reaction times, he said, and many drivers are not heeding warnings to not use cellphones or are otherwise distracted.
Dion said many drivers routinely go over the speed limit by 5 to 10 mph and he thinks that could continue even with a higher limit.
"I just think we're setting the stage for some really horrific crashes," he said.
Chenette said he would support more stringent enforcement and higher fines for speeding if a higher limit led to much faster speeds.
"I wouldn't want someone driving 90 or 100 miles per hour," he said.
Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:
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