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September 27, 2010 5:45 AM, EDT

Obama Seeks Weight Exemption For Vermont, Maine Highways

By Michele Fuetsch, Staff Reporter

This story appears in the Sept. 27 print edition of Transport Topics.

President Obama has asked that a pilot program allowing trucks up to 100,000 pounds to run on interstate highways in Maine and Vermont become a permanent exemption to the federal 80,000-pound limit.

The Obama administration requested to the Senate Appropriations Committee that a provision for permanency be included in the upcoming appropriations measure to fund the federal government for the new fiscal year starting Oct. 1, Maine Sen. Susan Collins (R) said in a Sept. 15 announcement.

“This is exciting. This is as far along as we’ve ever been,” said Brian Parke, president of the Maine Motor Transport Association, which has lobbied for years for higher truck weights.

“We understand that there are others out there that are opposed to this . . . and that’s okay,” Parke said. “We’re just looking for a Maine solution.”

Collins and Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) previously co-sponsored legislation that created the pilot program under which trucks up to 100,000 pounds have been allowed to travel this year on interstates in both states.

The pilot allowed transportation officials to assess the effect on roads when the larger trucks travel on interstates rather than secondary roads. The pilot, however, is due to end Dec. 17.

In the wake of Obama’s notification to the committee, Collins and Leahy sent a letter asking the committee to support the exemption.

In some other places, such as Massachusetts, New Hampshire and New York, the federal government has granted exemptions to the 80,000-pound weight limit on interstates.

“For too long, Maine and Vermont have been at a competitive disadvantage while our next-door neighbors have enjoyed the economic benefits that come with higher highway truck weight limits,” the Collins-Leahy letter said.

Heavier trucks, many of them serving the timber industry and the paper mills in the two states, are forced to run on local roads.

But in Maine, for example, the state’s turnpike makes up part of Interstate 95 and allows the 100,000-pound trucks to run there.

Once such trucks reach Augusta, however, where the turnpike ends and I-95 becomes just a federal interstate, the trucks must turn off onto smaller state routes that wind north to Canada through the centers of small towns.

That creates “significant safety concerns for pedestrians and motorists” and puts pressure on already overburdened secondary roads and bridges, Collins and Leahy said.

“We greatly appreciate the president’s support for changes that will improve safety and economic productivity,” American Trucking Associations President Bill Graves said.

“Existing restrictions on truck weight limits constrain the trucking industry’s efforts to reduce crashes, help our customers to remain competitive in global markets and lower our carbon footprint,” he added.

Since the pilot program took the heavy trucks off the local highways, the response from residents and town officials has been overwhelmingly positive, MMTA’s Parke said.

“We’re not only getting phone calls from truckers,” he said, “. . . we’re getting calls from the towns saying what can we do to keep the trucks from coming [back] into our villages.”

In their letter to the Appropriations Committee, Collins and Leahy said they are pleased that “the administration appreciates the positive impacts that the pilot programs have had in our states.”

In his notification to the committee, provided to Transport Topics by Leahy’s office, the president said that “continuing the program will improve safety on local roads and increase efficiency of commercial trucking in the region.”