WASHINGTON – The Senate is on the verge of passing legislation that would allow trucks weighing up to 100,000 pounds to exit Maine’s side roads and use all Maine interstate highways.

The truck weight measure has been long sought by the Maine congressional delegation, state officials and many local residents worried about big rigs rumbling through intersections,  past homes and schools.

Currently, trucks weighing more than 80,000 pounds can use only the Maine Turnpike.

The legislation co-authored by Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., to exempt heavier trucks in the two states from the interstate limits was included in a broad package of 2012 spending measures. The Senate worked on the bill until well after midnight, but won’t take a final vote on the overall spending package until lawmakers return from a week-long recess.

The provision authored by Collins and Leahy applies to just Maine and Vermont and would give both states permanent exemptions to the interstate ban.

The provision is not in the House version, so proponents still need to win inclusion in the House-Senate version.

For a year, the big trucks were largely absent from side roads. But last December, a federal pilot program allowing access to all Maine interstates lapsed.

Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and Rep. Mike Michaud, D-2nd District, and Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, back the provision.

Maine lawmakers say state businesses are at a disadvantage, because Massachusetts and New Hampshire already have the interstate exemptions. Lawmakers, truckers and the Maine Department of Transportation say six-axle trucks – the exemption would require heavier trucks to have six axles, not just five – operate more safely on highways than side roads.

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

The report said heavier trucks are allowed to operate on about 22,500 miles of non-interstate roads in Maine, but not on about 250 of Maine’s 367 miles of interstate. The report also said heavier trucks use more gas and take more time to reach destinations due to the ban.

An average trip from Hampden near Bangor north to Houlton by a six-axle, 100,000-pound truck takes two hours and 55 minutes on Route 2 versus two hours and five minutes on I-95, with the truck burning 10 fewer gallons of diesel on the interstate route, the report said.

Using Route 2 instead of I-95 also means passing through more than 270 intersections, 30 traffic lights and 86 crosswalks, and driving by 3,000 driveways and through nine school crossings.

There are opponents – including the railroad industry – to Maine’s exemption and to the use of heavier trucks in general. They say the heavier trucks tear up highways and are unsafe to operate on any road.

“Bigger, heavier trucks take longer to stop, are more prone to roll over, and accelerate bridge and road destruction,” said a recent release by a coalition of safety organizations, including Parents Against Tired Truckers, the Truck Safety Coalition and Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways.

Maine DOT officials and truckers say a six-axle, near 100,000-pound truck is no harder to handle and stop than a five-axle, 80,000-pound truck because of the wider weight distribution and increased braking capacity.

Brian Parke, president and CEO of the Maine Motor Transport Association, said there are economic benefits for the trucking industry and customers to having heavier – not necessarily bigger – trucks haul loads more quickly down the interstates. Fuel savings, and increased payload and productivity could add up to several millions of dollars a year, Parke said.

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