WASHINGTON – A key Senate panel endorsed legislation Tuesday to allow large trucks back on interstate highways in Maine.

Legislation co-authored by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, to allow trucks weighing as much as 100,000 pounds to use all of the state’s interstates has been included in a 2012 transportation spending bill approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee’s transportation subcommittee.

Collins, the top Republican on the subcommittee, wrote the legislation with Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. Vermont and Maine have been trying to overturn a federal ban on heavier trucks using interstates. The language in the bill applies to just Maine and Vermont, calling for permanent exemptions to the federal ban.

In a prepared statement, Collins noted that the bill must now clear the full committee and the full Senate. The same provision is not in the House version of the 2012 transportation spending bill, so the Senate version would have to win out in a House-Senate conference committee on the final bill.

This is the latest attempt in a campaign by Maine members of Congress. Currently, trucks weighing more than 80,000 pounds can use only the Maine Turnpike and must use side roads elsewhere around the state.

But a number of groups oppose the senators’ plan, saying heavy trucks are unsafe and cause too much wear and tear on highways and bridges. Joan Claybrook, chairwoman of Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways, on Tuesday decried the proposal as a “corporate giveaway” to the trucking industry.

Maine lawmakers say Maine businesses are at a disadvantage now, because nearby states such as Massachusetts and New Hampshire already have exemptions letting the bigger trucks use their interstates.

Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, has introduced a bill to allow states to seek individual waivers from the U.S. transportation secretary. Currently, individual states affected by the weight limits must seek exemptions through legislation.

Snowe’s bill would allow the secretary of transportation to establish three-year pilot programs on a state-by-state basis allowing heavier trucks on their interstates. The pilot programs would require states to establish safety committees to determine whether the exemption should become permanent.

A bill in the House authored by Democratic Rep. Mike Michaud of Maine also would allow heavier trucks on interstates in Maine and other states.

Michaud pledged his support for Collins’ measure even as he works to advance his bill, which he said has 54 bipartisan co-sponsors in the House and has been introduced in the Senate by Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho.

For a year, the big trucks were largely absent from side roads in Maine. But in December, a federal pilot program allowing trucks weighing 80,000 to 100,000 pounds on all of Maine’s interstates lapsed. Once again, heavier trucks were allowed only on the Maine Turnpike.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

MaineToday Media Washington Bureau Chief Jonathan Riskind can be contacted at 791-6280 or at: [email protected]

Twitter: Twitter.com/MaineTodayDC.