May 27, 2012

East-West Highway: savior or albatross?

Environmental concerns aside, whether the $2 billion project is economically feasible or not could depend on how consultants look at it.

By Colin Woodard cwoodard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Mainers are often described as being risk averse, conditioned by thin soils, frigid winters, Colonial-era Indian wars, and a century and a half of economic privation to work hard and stretch what little we've got as far as we can.

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Peter Vigue

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A BRIEF HISTORY of the EAST-WEST HIGHWAY

1944: Interstate system plans initially include route from Calais to Burlington, Vt., via Bangor and Augusta.

June 1967: Gov. Ken Curtis declares his full support for highway linking Maine with upstate New York via New Hampshire and Vermont. Says he's discussed it with President Lyndon Johnson. Cost blocks progress on would-be I-92.

January 1971: W. Bartlett Cram, chair of East-West Highway Association, declares "prospects (for the highway) look better today than they have at any time since the effort started in 1965." Proposal runs from Calais to Amsterdam, N.Y., with multi-lane spurs to Bar Harbor, Portland and Montreal. Federal Highway Administration rejects plan.

January 1974: East-west highway proposal submitted to state Legislature, but is unsuccessful.

March 1987: Senate President Charles Pray, D-Millinocket, unveils east-west plan on Route 9/Route 2 corridor to be completed by 2000. Costs block progress.

April 1998: Legislature directs MDOT to study feasibility of four east-west highway routes across Maine.

September 1999: MDOT study concludes four-lane highway proposals do not justify costs; recommends upgrading of existing roads.

2008: Cianbro promotes new plan for private East-West Highway, with construction to start between 2011 and 2015. Great Recession delays effort.

February 2012: Cianbro asks Legislature to fund $300,000 feasibility study, which is ultimately approved, with support from Gov. Paul LePage.

-- By Colin Woodard

Not so Peter Vigue, 65, Maine native, chief executive of the Pittsfield-based engineering and construction giant Cianbro Corp., and tireless promoter of one of the boldest private-sector infrastructure proposals in the state's history: a $2 billion, 220-mile closed-access toll highway sweeping through the forests of rural Washington, Penobscot, Piscataquis, Somerset and northern Franklin counties to create a direct link from southwestern New Brunswick to southern Quebec.

"We're not just connecting Maine to Canada on two sides, we're connecting the interior of Maine to the industrial Midwest," Vigue said. "This isn't about Canada, it's about us. It's about developing the economic strategy we've never had and asking ourselves as a state what we are going to be when we grow up."

His East-West Highway proposal -- which would have environmental impacts and transform the character of the isolated communities along its route -- is polarizing, so much so that Vigue sometimes travels with bodyguards. But, setting those concerns aside, two big questions still hang over the proposal and the consultants who will soon be tasked by the Maine Department of Transportation to assess its feasibility:

Would the private highway attract enough paying traffic to pay for itself and, if so, would Maine really see a significant share of the benefits?

The Maine Sunday Telegram spoke with two dozen sources from Ottawa, Ontario, to Moncton, New Brunswick, and many Maine points in between, including experts on regional trade, railroad and port operators, truckers, transportation consultants, economists and elected officials.

Some were bullish on the project, others skeptical. What separates the camps are their basic assumptions about how the economic case for the project should best be tested. This suggests that the upfront choices MDOT makes about how the consultants should frame their research will have a significant effect on the conclusions they will reach.

A LIGHTLY USED ROAD FOR CANADIANS?

Those who think that the best way to evaluate the highway's prospects and likely benefits to Maine is to look at current and projected demand and transportation flows in the region tend to be less certain of its value than Vigue is.

There's a reason such a highway has never been built, this line of thinking suggests, and it hasn't changed.

The proposed road runs through a very sparsely populated part of Maine and would compete for Canada-to-Canada freight traffic with an existing railway that could be upgraded for a fraction of the cost and environmental impact. Given border delays, the proposed route isn't even a slam-dunk shortcut for most Atlantic Canadian truckers and motorists. Add in the steep tolls that may be necessary to pay for construction, maintenance and plowing, and many may think twice about using it.

"I think people are going to have to look at this very carefully and not just throw money at it," said Bob Grindrod, president of the Hermon-based Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, which runs three round-trip freight trains each week between Montreal and Brownville Junction in Piscataquis County, where they're met by Irving-owned trains bound to and from the port of Saint John, New Brunswick.

"You have to look and ask what wants to move in or out of the Maritimes. If there isn't enough volume to pay the tolls, you'd end up with a bankrupt road."

The State Planning Office and MDOT evaluated traffic prospects along the general route of Vigue's highway in 1999 when the economy was booming and northern border security was still lax.

(Continued on page 2)

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