Will Maine keep on trucking?
Advocates worry that Congress will not act before the truck weight pilot expires in December
By Douglas Rooks
When Brian Bouchard decided to do an experiment, running trucks along I-95 and parallel two-lane roads from Hampden to Houlton, the results surprised even him.
The president and CEO of H.O. Bouchard in Hampden was trying to create some real-time data concerning the one-year pilot project that allows 100,000-pound, six-axle trucks to operate throughout Maine and Vermont’s interstate systems. It expires in December unless Congress renews it. The contrasts for the 120-mile trip were striking.
The truck using local roads and state highways passed 86 pedestrian crosswalks, nine school crossings, four railroad crossings and four hospitals. It also encountered 644 oncoming vehicles. The totals for the truck on the interstate were zeros across the board.
From the driving perspective, the comparisons were equally dramatic. The driver on the local route shifted 192 times and braked 68 times, while the interstate driver shifted three times and braked just once. The interstate trip – timed at two hours and five minutes – was also 50 minutes shorter, saving 10 gallons of diesel fuel, reducing wear and tear on the big rig and stress and fatigue for the driver.
When the U.S. Congress authorized the one-year pilot exempting Maine interstates from the 80,000-pound national limit last December 16, adopting an appropriations amendment by Senator Susan Collins, these were just the kind of results for which Maine advocates of the change were hoping.
“The improvement in safety and efficiency is just overwhelming,” said Bouchard, an MBTA board member who is also a past president of the Maine Motor Transport Association.
His comments are echoed by other industry observers.
Pat Sirois, director of the Sustainable Forestry Initiative for the Maine Forest Products Council, said that the higher weight limit has been a boon for the logging industry. “We’re thrilled across the board,” he said. “This is exactly the right way to move wood products around Maine.”
While most people envision big logging trucks plying remote areas on their way to mills, interstates are also vital to the efficiency of the industry. “These are major haul routes, and most of the finished products from Maine sawmills and specialty mills go out-of-state along the interstates,” he said. “If you can make three trips to the mill a day instead of two, that’s a huge savings.”
Productivity improvements such as those allowed by the pilot project are not easy to find, he said. “Everything we can do to make transportation more affordable makes the industry more viable.”
The Forest Products Council has also been soliciting comments from drivers and the public about the pilot. “What is really striking is the relief from not having to face oncoming traffic,” Sirois said. “That is a really big hazard for drivers, and a big source of driver fatigue.”
When it comes to weight limits, Maine has long been a “doughnut hole” – its neighbors Canada, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and New York all have higher limits, most of them grandfathered in the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 that created the interstate highway system. Maine didn’t pass its 100,000-pound limit for six-axles on state roads until later. In 1994, the state was notified by the Federal Highway Administration that such rigs were not permitted on the interstate system except for the Maine Turnpike, which was built as a state road before the interstate system existed. Ever since, the congressional delegation has attempted to create parity for Maine, but without success – until the Collins amendment was adopted last year.
“I would challenge anyone who thinks we should return to the previous system to take a ride along any of the roads we can now bypass,” said Brian Parke, president and CEO of the Maine Motor Transport Association.
Before the pilot project, fuel tankers regularly plied Route 1 through Freeport, going right past L.L. Bean on their way up the coast. Others navigated local roads through South Portland from the Sprague terminal out to the Maine Turnpike, where they could legally travel, at least as far as Exit 113 in Augusta.
The scene was similar in Bangor, where logging trucks were a regular sight, heading through downtown crosswalks and traffic lights.
The results to date seem to bear out the findings of previous studies commissioned to show the benefits of allowing 100,000-pound trucks to use the interstates – the roads designed to the highest standards of safety and performance.
The six-axle rigs have become the preferred design for fuel oil, wood products and other heavy cargoes, Parke explained. By spreading the load more evenly, these rigs actually create less stress on pavement and bridges than an 80,000-pound, five-axle model.
A 2004 study by Wilbur Smith Associates found that over 90 percent of all freight in Maine moves by truck. It estimated that allowing full use of the interstate system would prevent three fatal crashes a year and would reduce annual bridge maintenance costs by $317,000. The study estimated the state would save between $1 million and $1.65 million in pavement rehabilitation costs and would realize another $356,000 in safety savings annually. Overall, Maine would save at least $2 million a year.
A current study by the American Transportation Research Institute along a test route between Augusta to Brewer found that trucks would realize daily fuel savings of 194 gallons, while reducing CO2 emissions by two metric tons. Trucks would see fuel economy gains of 14 to 21 percent, while reducing CO2 emissions by 6 percent.
Extension in the cards?
Given the numerous advantages, renewal of the weight limit exemption might seem like a no-brainer. But that’s not necessarily the case, according to Maine’s congressional offices and industry experts.
First, there’s the problem of getting Congress to act – by no means a sure thing. The preferred solution would be making the exemption permanent, but that won’t be possible until there’s a long-term reauthorization of the federal transportation program. Passage of the reauthorization isn’t expected before Congress adjourns for the year.
Representative Mike Michaud, who represents the 2nd District, is a member of the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee and its Highways and Transit Subcommittee and will be in a good position to advocate for the change when reauthorization occurs, a spokesman for the congressman said.
But the more immediate legislative vehicle probably will be a one-year renewal through the annual appropriations process, something Senator Collins, who serves on the Appropriations Committee, has already filed according to her communications director, Kevin Kelley.
A one-year extension, Kelley said, “will also give the U.S. Department of Transportation and MaineDOT more time to study the impact on safety, road durability, commerce and energy use.”
The Federal Highway Administration was supposed to file a report on the short-term impact of the change by June, but it has been delayed. “They’re now telling us it’ll be by the end of summer,” said Chip Getchell, MaineDOT’s director of asset services, who is following the issue.
The question about the federal report, Getchell said, is that it will likely examine only the impact of larger numbers of trucks on the interstate system, without examining the benefits of getting the same trucks off secondary roads. While MaineDOT is “awaiting the report with interest,” Getchell said, it will move quickly to file its own report if the full range of impacts isn’t covered. “Six months is not a lot of time,” he added. “We really need more time to do a definitive study.”
One specific concern of federal administrators has already been addressed, Getchell said. “They wanted us to take a look at the interstate bridges, and we did. These are our strongest bridges, and they were built to higher standards than some other states. We have a lot of comfort that they can carry these loads indefinitely.”
Renewal of the pilot project will face opposition, both from states where rail interests have traditionally opposed any weight limit increases, and national highway safety advocates who often take the same stance.
Advocates of the weight limit increase say that not everyone understands the complexities of the issue. In 2004, when MaineDOT sponsored public hearings, speakers overwhelmingly were in favor of the weight limit exemption – but among written comments, only 14 of 39 were favorable.
“Part of our challenge is to show how Maine is different,” said Maine Motor Transport’s Parke. “This is a rural state, highly dependent on truck transport, and our industries and deliveries make the six-axle rig the best choice for us.”
Brian Bouchard said that his company, which has 170 employees and 80 drivers, uses “98 percent six-axle combinations” among its 200 trailers. “That’s all we do,” he said.
Despite the obstacles, there’s a good chance Maine will be able to buy enough time to get the pilot program fully evaluated. One congressional office staffer said that “the delegation has always worked well together on this, both House and Senate and in both parties.”
”Our representatives are extremely engaged,” said Brian Parke. “They know how much is at stake.”