CHINA – At the China Dine-ah last week, Christine Rancourt winced when asked about the massive trucks whizzing down Route 202/9, through her small town and past her daughter’s elementary school.

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.

But in mid-December, a federal pilot program that allowed trucks weighing between 80,000 and 100,000 pounds to use all of 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 Route 202/9 through China, on their way to and from Canada and other parts of Maine.

“I’m not happy with it,” Rancourt said of the return of the big trucks. “I notice a big difference.”

Rancourt’s friend, fellow mom 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 state’s 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 over an end-of-the-year spending bill. After intense 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 last month introduced a bill to permanently move the heavier trucks back to the interstate highways, and says this is her top legislative priority for the year. Collins has partnered with Democratic U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, whose state also wants an exemption to allow heavier trucks on its interstates.

But not everyone thinks trucks up to 100,000 pounds belong on Maine’s interstates, or any other state roads.

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 U.S. Rep. Jean Schmidt of Ohio, allowing states like Maine to “opt in” to higher truck weights on the interstates, but not forcing any states to do so.

Truck industry representatives dispute assertions of safety problems and road damage, saying the legislation would require the heaviest trucks to have a sixth axle, which redistributes weight more evenly and allows the trucks to stop more quickly.

Collins said in a recent interview that the safest course of action is taking the trucks off the side roads in small towns such as China. She also notes that Maine businesses are at a disadvantage now, because surrounding states such as Massachusetts and New Hampshire already have won exemptions letting the biggest trucks use their interstates.

A Maine Department of Transportation report last fall concluded that allowing trucks on all the interstates would “increase traffic safety, improve the environment, increase business competitiveness and reduce transportation infrastructure costs at no cost to the taxpayer.”

Mainers “really want them on the interstates,” Collins said, citing support from a bevy of law enforcement and public safety officials, Republican Gov. Paul LePage and an array of trucking, logging and other business interests.

Snowe said she supports Collins’ bill, which could be inserted in an annual spending measure, but also plans to pursue legislation through other avenues as a senior member of the Senate’s commerce committee. For instance, she might sponsor legislation giving the secretary of transportation the power to grant waivers to individual states allowing the heavier trucks.

“The current patchwork of regulations that govern truck weights on our interstate system is a barrier to commerce and an impediment to safety,” Snowe said, adding she wants Maine to get an exemption but supports a national standard if possible.

Brian Parke, president and CEO of the Maine Motor Transport Association, said his members can’t understand why they aren’t allowed on all of the state’s interstates.

“It doesn’t make sense,” Parke said. “Why go back on secondary roads when we can use the interstate?”

Washington Bureau Chief Jonathan Riskind can be contacted at 791-6280 or at:

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