AUGUSTA, Maine — Transportation Commissioner David Bernhardt announced Tuesday that he has approved raising speed limits on portions of the state’s interstate highways, including Interstate 295, Interstate 95, Interstate 395 and Route 1, by five miles per hour.

Motorists traveling on those routes Tuesday might have already noticed Department of Transportation crews posting signs reflecting the new speed limits. Bernhardt said during a news conference Tuesday in Augusta that he decided to raise the speed limits after a study of crash statistics and the speeds most travelers are already driving.

“It’s much safer if the operating speed and the posted speed are the same,” said Bernhardt.

Under the changes, the speed limit on Interstate 295 from Tukey’s Bridge in Portland all the way to Gardiner has increased from 65 to 70 mph. The limit on the Scarborough Connector will go from 55 to 60 mph and Interstate 195 in the Saco area will go from 55 to 60 mph.

The top speed on a four-lane, divided portion of Route 1 between Brunswick and Bath also has been raised, from 55 to 60 mph.

The limit is being raised to 70 mph from mile 114 in northern Augusta to mile 126 in Oakland, as well as from mile 134 north of Oakland all the way to mile 181 in Bangor.

In the Bangor area, the limit from mile 181 to 188 will go up five mph — a maximum of 70 mph in some spots — and on Interstate 395 in the Bangor area, the limit will go from 55 to 60 mph between I-95 and Exit 4, and to 65 mph between Exit 4 and Route 1A.

Unchanged will be the portion of I-295 between the Fore River in Portland to Tukey’s Bridge, which is 50 mph. The portion of Interstate 95 from the Maine Turnpike to Mile 114 in the Augusta area will also remain at 65 mph. Also unchanged from the current 65-mph limit will be about 8 miles of Interstate 95 in the Waterville area.

The legal speed on Interstate 95 from Old Town to Houlton, where the limit was raised to 75 mph in 2011, will remain unchanged.

The possibility of raising the speed limit on the interstate highway system was made possible in May 2013 with the enactment of LD 654, An Act to Raise the Speed Limit on Interstate 295. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Justin Chenette, D-Saco, originally called for raising the speed limit on Interstate 295, which runs between Scarborough and West Gardiner, to 75 mph. It was amended to give the transportation commissioner the authority to raise the limit on the entire interstate system.

The Department of Transportation testified neither for nor against the bill, though the department’s legislative liaison suggested in committee testimony that if lawmakers wanted to pass Chenette’s bill, it should give the commissioner authority over the entire interstate system in Maine, not just parts of it.

With that change, the bill won unanimous approval in the Legislature and went into law on May 20 without Gov. Paul LePage’s signature.

The speed limit on Interstate 95 in Maine stood at 70 mph between 1959 and 1973, before it and the limit on other highways was reduced to 55 mph by Congress as an energy-saving measure. Congress upped the limit on interstates to 65 mph in 1987 and in 1995, gave states the authority to set their own speed limits.

AAA of Northern New England opposed the bill, arguing that Interstate 295 is already congested and is a safety concern.

George Colby, a commercial truck driver from New Gloucester, urged the Legislature’s Transportation Committee not to raise the speed limit on I-295 between Scarborough and Topsham because he said there are too many exits and too much congestion in that area.

“When I first came across this bill and read it I was horrified,” said Colby. “I couldn’t believe that somebody would actually try to introduce this bill.”

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.