March 28, 2013

Drivers' feelings mixed about higher interstate speeds

BY NATHAN BURGESS

BY NATHAN BURGESS

Portland Press Herald

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

"If people want to go faster, they should leave earlier," Cape Elizabeth vegetable farmer Jodie Jordan said. Jordan, who sells carrots, oats and other produce in Portland's Monument Square, remembers when the highway speed limit was 55 mph. It is now 65 mph along much of the highway.

"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 Legislature would allow the state transportation commissioner to increase the speed limit on Interstates 295 and 95 to as high as 75 mph, according to the bill's sponsor, Rep. Justin Chenette, D-Saco. 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 passed the proposal. It will now go before the full Legislature.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Paul LePage said in a statement Wednesday that the governor is supportive, too.

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

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

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

State officials already have said increasing speeds on I-295 around Portland is out of the question because of traffic volume and other factors.

That, plus the fact the turnpike is not included, is leading some to ask, "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), it would be a big deal."

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

Earlier this year, Chenette proposed letting the state go to 75 mph on I-295, which runs between Scarborough and West Gardiner.

The bill was amended to give the commissioner power to raise the limit elsewhere on the highway, he said. Chenette said he also expects the change would make it easier for the Maine Turnpike Authority to change limits on that highway, too.

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 up 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, truck driver George Colby, of New Gloucester, submitted written testimony suggesting it would be safe to raise the speed limit 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 department seems to agree, saying it's likely they would consider raising the speed limit north of the Topsham exits.

"That is one of the top possibilities," said Ted Talbot, a spokesman for the Maine Department of Transportation, but "traffic studies and consultation with public safety and other public entities would have to happen before that."

Talbot said increasing the speed limit anywhere on the highway would take thought -- the number of ramps, traffic numbers and average speed of drivers all would have to be taken into account.

Lorenzo Rozzi, of Windham, isn't convinced 75 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 each day to get to work.

If there's any place he can see increasing the speed, it's the stretch 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.

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