Vermont Hopes To Raise Interstate Truck Weight Limit

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(Host) The Shumlin administration is urging Congress to grant Vermont a waiver to allow heavier trucks to use the interstate highway system.

Transportation officials want to get these big trucks out of Vermont’s downtowns.

As VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports, the leaders say road damage from Tropical Storm Irene makes the situation even more critical.

(Kinzel) Currently, the weight limit for big trucks on Vermont roads is 100,000 pounds. But the limit on the federal Interstate system is 80,000 pounds. And state transportation officials say this disparity is causing major headaches for many towns.

That’s because when these big trucks travel through Vermont, they have to use the smaller state roads and some of these roads pass right through downtown areas.

Senator Patrick Leahy has an amendment in the Senate transportation budget bill that would grant Vermont and Maine a waiver to allow heavier trucks on the Interstate system. A number of other states have been given similar waivers.

Leahy says it’s a good idea that’s become even more compelling in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene.

(Leahy) "I don’t what we would do if we didn’t have that. You look at the roads. I’ve gone all over the state of Vermont. I’ve gone to all these small towns everywhere else. The roads had problems handling big trucks before. It’d be impossible to handle them today."

(Kinzel) Sue Minter is the deputy transportation Secretary. She says the experience of Irene shows that the Interstate is a much better place for these heavy trucks:

(Minter) "We have 35 different bridges affected by this storm. The Interstate, and we’ve inspected every bridge across this state, the Interstate was not affected in the same way. The Interstate is designed to withstand impact and weights and so that’s why we think it’s so important and really safest for them to be on the Interstate system."

(Kinzel) Not everyone agrees. Cathy Chase is a spokesperson for the Truck Safety Coalition. She says these heavy trucks are unsafe and she wants them banned from all state and federal roads:

(Chase) "If this exemption is granted to Vermont and Maine, then the surrounding states are going to go to Congress and say, ‘Well you granted these exemptions for these two states. Why not our states? Right now we’re at a competitive disadvantage.’ And that eventually all of the exemptions will follow the rule and there will be 100,000-pound or higher trucks throughout the country."

(Kinzel) Minter is sympathetic to this argument. But she says Vermont can’t adopt lower truck weight limits because it would hurt many businesses in the state.

(Minter) "I understand people’s concerns about heavier and heavier trucks. What we can’t do is change industry standards. These trucks are here. They’re driving on every part of our system. They’re in New York; they’re in New Hampshire; they’re in Quebec. And they’re having to ride in the least safe areas, right through our downtown neighborhoods and on local roads."

(Kinzel) The amendment is expected to be included in a massive omnibus budget bill next month. Senator Leahy says he’s optimistic that it will pass.

For VPR News, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier

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