Road, truck-related issues gain attention in Maine statehouse

| 4/24/2007

A bill making its way through the Maine Legislature would increase the borrowing limit for the Maine Turnpike Authority. Several other bills of interest to truckers also are drawing consideration in the statehouse.

The House voted 117-25 to give initial approval to a bill that would boost the Turnpike Authority’s bonding capacity by $100 million. Sponsored by Rep. Boyd Marley, D-Portland, the bill would bring the agency’s total capacity to $461 million. The current limit is $361 million.

Supporters say the higher limit would allow the Turnpike Authority to complete projects in its 20-year capital plan. The plan focuses on bridges, drainage and other improvements to the toll route.

Marley’s bill – LD321 – now awaits final consideration in the House and Senate. If approved, it would head to Gov. John Baldacci’s desk.

A bill in the Joint Committee on Transportation would allow the widening of a nine-mile stretch of the turnpike through the Portland area.

Sponsored by Sen. Dennis Damon, D-Hancock, the bill – LD320 – would authorize the Turnpike Authority to widen the section of the roadway from Exit 44 in Scarborough to Exit 53 in Falmouth. Two years ago an adjoining nine-mile stretch was widened from four to six lanes.

The work, with a price tag of $150 million, would be done only if the Turnpike Authority determines that alternatives are not sufficient to address congestion on the corridor, The Associated Press reported. Maine law requires that alternatives to widening be evaluated to determine if they would address the problem.

The widening project would be paid for in part by a toll increase that is scheduled to take effect in 2010. The rate hike hasn’t been set yet.

The turnpike last raised tolls by 22 percent in 2005. Officials estimate the new increase would be as much as 20 percent.

To further help foot the bill for the widening project, revenue bonds for the turnpike would be increased from $361 million to $386 million.

Turnpike officials are proposing to spend $75 million for the widening. Another $75 million would go for bridge upgrades and other modernization work.

A separate bill winding its way through the statehouse would repeal a Sept. 15, 2007, sunset provision in the state’s axle weight law.

Sponsored by Rep. Douglas Thomas, R-Ripley, the bill – LD9 – would make permanent certain fine amounts for six-axle trucks hauling special commodities or forest products that violate axle weight limits.

It also would permanently eliminate axle weight fine violations during the months of January and February on most state roads.

Another bill – LD265 – would increase the maximum gross vehicle weight limit and axle weight limit for large trucks equipped with idle-reduction technology. Sponsored by Rep. Charles Theriault, D-Madawaska, the bill would authorize affected trucks to weigh up to an additional 400 pounds.

While several bills of interest remain active others have been sidelined. Among them is a bill – LD694 – that required if a vehicle exceeds the limits for both gross vehicle weight and axle weight the lower of the fines would have applied.

Another failed effort – LD212 – focused on the penalty amount charged to truck drivers who are found to be in violation of hours-of-service regulations. The bill would have limited the fine for violating the rule to $100.

One other bill – LD19 – was designed to relieve traffic congestion on Interstate 295. It required the Turnpike Authority to create incentives for trucks to use the toll road. The authority would have consulted with the state’s Department of Transportation to develop “tolling strategies” designed to divert large truck traffic from I-295 onto the Maine Turnpike.

– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor