FREEPORT — As a truck driver for 14 years, Herman Hughes of Leeds has had to regularly maneuver his 100,000-pound, six-axle truck around Route 1medians in Yarmouth, tourists in Freeport and traffic in Falmouth to deliver gasoline.
Because his heavy truck was not allowed on Interstate 295, Hughes had to travel on Route 1. In Freeport, he said, people would cross Main Street in front of the truck without hesitation.
“It takes a lot more time and distance to stop 100,000 pounds,” he said Sunday in Yarmouth. “Some folks just don’t seem to understand.”
But residents and businesses along Route 1, and truckers like Hughes, are now enjoying a one-year respite, thanks to a new law allowing the trucks to travel on interstate highways.
A bill including a provision that lifted the federally mandated truck weight limit for one year, authored by U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, was signed in December by President Barack Obama.
The pilot program also exempts Maine’s federal highways from the 80,000-pound federal truck weight limit, making it possible for heavy trucks – typically those with six axles – to travel on federal highways instead of secondary roads like Route 1.
These 100,000-pound trucks have an additional axle at the rear of the trailer. They usually haul jet fuel, concrete, and lumber on short, in-state hauls.
Maine’s Congressional delegation has been working on this issue since 1994, with the help of former Town Councilors John Arsenault and Genie Beaulieu.
“I did my homework, talked to legislators and the interest grew,” Arsenault said. “Safety was my biggest motivator.”
He said trucks should not have to travel through small and busy towns because of the potential for accidents and hazardous material spills in close proximity to schools and busy downtown areas.
“It has been a godsend, a blessing nothing catastrophic has ever happened,” Arsenault said. “There have been rollovers and trucks going off roads, but it could have been so much worse.”
Where Arsenault left off, Beaulieu stepped in. Although it was a long process to work with the Maine Department of Transportation and Sens. Collins and Olympia Snowe, she said it was a battle she felt was important to support.
In an e-mail last week, Beaulieu said the trucks needed to be moved to the highway because the secondary roads are not capable of supporting 100,000-pound loads. Safety of residents and visitors was also a factor in her desire to pass the law, she said.
“Now that the law has passed, I almost can’t believe it,” Beaulieu said. “It took over 15 years to accomplish. When your common sense tells you something is right, don’t give up no matter how long it takes.”
Town Engineer Al Presgraves said allowing the heavier trucks to use the federal highways will benefit towns like Freeport by reducing costs associated with road repair, maintenance and paving.
“There is no doubt that heavy trucks caused more than 10 times the impact on the roads than passenger cars,” Presgraves said. “The other side of that is that Route 1 was built in the 1920s and was not designed to support 80,000 pounds of truck. The interstate has much better capacity to handle heavy loads.”
Town Manager Dale Olmstead said there were four major issues addressed when studying the benefits of moving trucks off Route 1 – safety, air quality, fuel consumption and road maintenance costs.
Olmstead said trucks cause noise problems by using their engine breaks and environmental problems by burning fuel on secondary roads and idling as they are forced to stop for school buses, pedestrians and other vehicles.
“Both (Arsenault) and (Beaulieu) have been instrumental at the local and state level,” he said. “I know they must both feel proud of their involvement in this long process.”
Charles Fischman, of 125 Main St., said the only disadvantage to his location is the constant truck traffic rumbling by his home at all hours of the day.
“We knew we would experience traffic when we moved onto Main street, but the trucks were so out of proportion to the rest of the neighborhood,” he said. “They are not intended to travel on these roads.”
Fischman said tanker trucks from South Portland would travel north throughout the night, and cement and logging trucks would tear by his house going southbound.
“It was a constant parade of huge trucks, all over 40 tons,” he said. “Safety is a huge issue for me, and now that they are gone, it has been such a great improvement.”
Fischman said the benefits to his quality of life in just a short time have been tangible. He said there are environmental benefits, safety benefits and less noise pollution.
“I cannot begin to tell you how delighted the neighborhood is,” he said. “This pilot program has already caused so many positive changes.”
Monica Kissane, owner of the White Cedar Inn, said the change in the truck law has been wonderful for her business.
“I definitely heard complaints from guests,” she said. “One woman threatened to leave because the noise was so bad.”
Kissane said the streets have been quieter. Even though some trucks must still travel through town to deliver to L.L. Bean or grocery stores, the larger trucks now use the highway.
“Since the heavy trucks have left the downtown area, it will be better for our roads and safer for pedestrians,” she said. “In just one month and during the winter with the windows closed, I’ve already heard a difference.”
Scott Thomas, owner of the Brewster House Bed and Breakfast at 180 Main St., said he used to hear the acceleration of the trucks as they travel up Route 1 and out of town. He also said his guests have complained about the noise.
“We have been here for four years and the truck traffic has increased during that time,” he said. “I was eager to hear that the law was passed, if only for one year, and I hope it becomes permanent.”
While Fire Chief Darrel Fournier said he did not recall any hazardous spills involving heavy trucks or pedestrian accidents in Freeport, he said he is very happy about the pilot program.
“This is a huge positive step to have those vehicles travel on the interstate,” he said “The hazard has been removed from Route 1 and put on the highway where it belongs.”
For Arsenault, the law is a victory, if only for a year.
“I am happy for the people’s safety,” he said. “It will save in fuel costs and save the roads from further destruction. This has been a nightmare for the people in Freeport, and all along Route 1. Let’s hope it sticks.”
Amy Anderson can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or email@example.com