AUGUSTA (AP) — Maine's Transportation Department would get the authority to raise the speed limit on Interstate 295 to 75 mph from Scarborough to West Gardiner if a bill reviewed by state lawmakers Friday becomes law.
The bill's sponsor, Rep. Justin Chenette, D-Saco, told the Transportation Committee that no speed limit would change automatically and that he's open to altering his bill to give the transportation commissioner the authority to set specific limits for the entire length of the interstate in Maine, up to 75 mph.
"The commissioner could then determine through thorough analysis and study if any part of our Interstate system could implement higher speeds," Chenette said. "I am amenable to lowering it 70 mph much like other states, but keep in mind the legislative intent would be to allow the commissioner up to 75 mph."
Chenette said a number of factors would go into determining raising or lowering a speed, such as how congested an area is, the number of on-ramps, painted lines or guard rails, for example.
"The intent isn't to simply hand over power to the commissioner and sit and forget it. There will not be arbitrary speed increases without proper vetting," Chenette said in his testimony to the Transportation Committee.
The speed limit for most of the 50-mile Scarborough-West Gardiner stretch, with exceptions in the Portland area, is 65 mph. AAA Northern New England said that top speed is sufficient.
"At the current maximum speed limit, this corridor experiences significant congestion and is a safety concern," AAA's Pat Moody said in testimony opposing Chenette's bill. "Raising the limit would adversely affect highway safety for the motorists of Maine."
In 2011, the Legislature passed a law allowing the commissioner to set speed limits up to 75 mph on Interstate 95 from Old Town to Houlton in the more remote northern Maine. That higher limit has been implemented.
Nina Fisher, a Transportation Department manager responsible for legislative and constituent services, told the committee she agrees that the transportation commissioner should be allowed to set speeds for all interstates in Maine. Such authority would likely eliminate a patchwork of various speeds that may not be tied to a specific need or supported by science.
Under the commissioner, "engineering science could be applied to those portions that could sustain a higher speed limit," Fisher said.
Speed limits have jumped around on Maine's Interstate highways through the years, Fisher said. It was 70 mph from 1959 to 1973, then lowered to 55 mph by federal law. Congress decided to let the speed go back up to 65 in 1987, when authority to set speeds was handed to the states, Fisher said.
The committee will hold a work session to make possible changes in the bill before it can go to the House and Senate. No date been set for the work session.