This past week was a media frenzy. I’m sure between the statewide newspapers and appearances on WGME 13 and a live segment on WCSH 6’s Newscenter, you've probably heard about my bill that deals with speed limits. Out of the 13 bills I submitted, this is the one bill that is the most simplistic and what I thought to be a no-brainer structural change. This was of course until I realized on the day of my public hearing how much the media has become so sensationalized for the simple sound bite and juicy headline.
On Friday morning, the AP incorrectly put out a wire story that stated my bill would increase the speed limit to 75 mph on I-295 if passed. Without talking to me and clearly without having read the text of my bill, all of the affiliates that use the AP for surface stories reported out the same incorrect information. Thus began the snowball effect throughout the day of incorrectly characterizing my bill as raising the speed limit in the busiest part of the highway in the state. A simple phone call or email for fact checking purposes would have avoided this whole media flub, but alas I expect too much from my former colleagues as a former reporter myself. Media stations were posting graphics on their Facebook pages sensationalizing the speed limit debate and soliciting response from the public to see if raising the speed limit was a good or bad idea, even though my bill doesn’t do that.
I ended up going on TV to refute the claims that were being tossed about. My bill would simply hand over the jurisdiction of raising the interstate speed limits to the individuals who are engineers and experts on the matter, such as the Maine Department of Transportation, including the transportation commissioner (who also happens to be an engineer). The cap would be 75 mph versus 65 mph, not in terms of the speed you or I go, but in terms of a cap for the commissioner as an evaluation tool. In current state statute, the cap for the commissioner is 65 mph to set the maximum allowable speed, but there is currently a stretch of the interstate between Old Town and Houlton that was increased to 75 mph through legislative approval last session. This bill would clear up the language for continuity in the state statute. Instead of arbitrarily raising speed limits without proper vetting, I want a proper scientific review and engineering study prior to any speed limit increase or decrease is carried out to ensure safety first. This way it gives the commissioner the flexibility and authority to evaluate all sections of the highway to see what is a safe speed and what would not be safe, which is included in my amendment to the transportation committee that wasn’t disseminated to the media yet. If this bill passes, it is very likely nothing will change. If anything, the stretch of the interstate north of Augusta might increase because of its more rural nature. No one is suggesting increasing the speed limit in congested and rather dangerous areas to drive like through the city of Portland, for instance.
Is this the major priority of the Legislature? No. It is simply one small structural change bill in a sea of 1,700 bills being looked into. My other 12 bills have to do with economic growth, job creation, education enhancements, and political action committee reform, but those aren’t being covered in the media like the attention this simple bill received. What should be on the front page of the newspaper or in the in-depth TV news piece, are the bills that are harder to cover, not as sexy to explain, but nevertheless impact your every day lives. Like my bill to help businesses create jobs through an expanded tax incentive, my bill to fund education to 55 percent, or even my bill to rein in corporate and special interest influence in elections via campaign finance reform. The point is, don’t take a story about Augusta you read about in the paper or watch on TV as complete truth; it is simply a narrow prism of the work being done and spun in a way to elicit an emotional response to shape the conversation. There is so much being done that isn’t reported that you should know about. My job will be to help better connect you to your officials and the decisions being made throughout the entire process. This is why I try and keep you updated via Facebook, Twitter and my legislative website. I respond to your concerns via email personally and directly and hope you reach out to me with any concerns or clarifying questions you may have. Over the next few weeks I will use this column to delve more deeply into the bills I’m directly working on that are truly beyond the headlines.
Justin Chenette is the state representative for district 134 in Saco. You can get legislative updates about the work out of the 126th Legislature at www.justinchenette.com, Facebook.com/ justinforsaco, and Twitter.com/justinchenette.
Beyond the Headlines
Weekly Column featured in The Biddeford-Saco-OOB Courier Newspaper by Rep. Justin Chenette of Saco