Politics

March 28, 2013

Bill allowing 75 mph on I-295 advances

By Nathan Burgess nburgess@pressherald.com
Staff writer

AUGUSTA — Drivers have mixed feelings about allowing state officials to post 75-mph speed limits on Maine's interstate highways, an idea that's gaining ground with lawmakers.

click image to enlarge

Interstate 295 just north of Freeport.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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Traffic flows along Interstate 295 near the Falmouth exit on Wednesday March 27, 2013. A bill now before the Legislature would allow Maine's transportation commissioner to raise the speed limit to 75 mph on I-195 and Interstate 95.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

"If people want to go faster, they should leave earlier," said Jodie Jordan, a vegetable farmer in Cape Elizabeth.

Jordan, who sells produce at the weekly farmers market in Portland's Monument Square, remembers when the highway speed limit was 55 mph. It is now 65 mph along much of Maine's interstates.

"I thought 55 was enough," he said. "But you know, whatever you make the speed limit, everyone is always going to go 10 miles an hour over anyway."

The bill before the Maine Legislature, sponsored by Rep. Justin Chenette, D-Saco, would allow the state's transportation commissioner to raise the speed limit as high as 75 mph on interstates 295 and 95.

The law would not apply to the Maine Turnpike, where speed limits are determined by the turnpike authority.

On Tuesday, the Legislature's Transportation Committee unanimously endorsed the proposal, which will now go before the full Legislature.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Paul LePage said in a prepared statement Wednesday that the governor supports the bill.

"Generally, the administration would accept the added flexibility for the commissioner to ensure Maine's roads are safely traveled," Adrienne Bennett said in the statement. But any changes would have to comply with federal law and road engineering standards, she said.

The bill would not automatically increase the speed limit, just open up the possibility.

"Good, because I like to speed," said Julian Fleisher, a musician from New York City who comes to Portland for gigs. "I just like to go fast. I know it burns a lot of gas."

State officials have already said that increasing speeds on I-295 around Portland is out of the question because of traffic volume and other factors. Because of that, and the fact that the turnpike is not included, some drivers are asking, "What's the point?"

"I don't know what the big benefit is," said Lisa Holland, 52, a legal assistant from Portland. "If it was all of (the interstate highways), it would be a big deal."

Two years ago, the state posted 75 mph signs on the stretch of I-95 from Old Town to Houlton.

Earlier this year, Chenette proposed letting the state raise the speed limit to 75 mph on I-295, which runs between Scarborough and West Gardiner. The bill was amended to give the transportation commissioner power to raise the limit elsewhere on the interstates, he said. Chenette said he expects the change would make it easier for the Maine Turnpike Authority to change speed limits on its 109-mile stretch of I-95.

He expects lawmakers to approve the bill, but said some of the public is confused about it. "It does not increase the speed limit; it is to fix a structural problem with the law," he said.

Chenette said the purpose of the change is to leave decisions about speed limits to qualified state officials, instead of the Legislature. "It's to take it out of the hands of the legislators and put it into the hands of the people who know what they are talking about," he said.

At a public hearing, George Colby, a truck driver from New Gloucester, submitted written testimony suggesting that it would be safe to raise the speed limit on I-295 only between Topsham and West Gardiner.

"There are too many exits between Scarborough and Topsham to raise the speed limit there," he wrote. "For a reason unknown to me drivers who use I-295 between Scarborough and Yarmouth seem to be very confused and unable to drive safely."

The Maine Department of Transportation apparently agrees, saying it's likely to consider raising the speed limit north of the Topsham exits. "That is one of the top possibilities," said Ted Talbot, spokesman for the department, but "traffic studies and consultation with public safety and other public entities would have to happen before that."

Raising the speed limit anywhere on the highway would take thought, Talbot said. The number of ramps, the traffic volume and drivers' average speed would all have to be taken into account.

Lorenzo Rozzi of Windham isn't convinced that a 75-mph speed limit is a good idea anywhere.

"You've got to think that 65, 75 is really 75, 85 anyway because that's how fast people actually go," said Rozzi, who owns City Center News in Portland.

Larry Niles, director of finance and administration at the Family Planning Association of Maine in Augusta, drives 55 miles from Falmouth to get to work each day. If there's any place he can see increasing the speed limit, it's the stretch of I-295 between Brunswick and Augusta. "The reality is, 74 is pretty much standard to most people," he said.

State House Bureau Writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.

Nathan Burgess can be contacted at 791-6383 or at:
nburgess@pressherald.com

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