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

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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

"From the perspective of Maine's economy alone, the substantially higher costs of constructing a four-lane divided highway on a new alignment" -- including a theoretical $1.17 billion Calais to Coburn Gore route -- "do not appear to be justified, based upon the resulting modest incremental increase in economic benefits they provide to the State," the final report concluded. "When compared on a 'cost efficiency' basis, the four-lane divided highway options do not appear to generate sufficient additional economic growth to justify their higher costs."

Craig Seymour, managing principal of the consultancy that produced the study, RKG Associates of Dover, N.H., said the route evaluated in 1999 is comparable to the one proposed by Vigue.

"The road is primarily to get goods from one part of Canada to another part of Canada, and the question now is if the forecasts of the Maritimes and Canadian economy would support this," he said.

"At the end of the 1990s, when we were doing these forecasts, we were looking at the end of a relatively robust growth cycle, and that tends to push the (traffic) forecasts up," said Charles Colgan, an economist at the University of Southern Maine who also worked on the 1999 study. "The 1999 forecasts would have been way off for 2015" because of the subsequent recession, 9/11 attacks, increased border security, and the 2008 financial meltdown, he added.

Both Seymour and Colgan said a new study would be required to re-evaluate future traffic.

In his public presentations, Vigue displays a map of controlled-access highways in the Northeast region with the caption "What is Missing?" which is intended to draw attention to an obvious missing east-west link across the waist of Maine.

But the map omits an existing key New Brunswick highway segment: Trans-Canada Highway 2, between Moncton and Fredericton, which provides a straight shot to Woodstock, New Brunswick, and access to Interstate 95 in Houlton, then boomerangs over the top of Maine and back toward Montreal.

The existence of this highway link dampens the appeal of the proposed East-West shortcut across Maine for anyone traveling between Montreal or Toronto and Prince Edward Island, much of Nova Scotia or Newfoundland. At Moncton, truckers and motorists would make a choice whether to take the Trans-Canada Highway to Fredericton and around Maine or New Brunswick Highway 1 to Calais and the East-West Highway.

Google Maps pegs the Trans-Canada Highway run from Moncton to Montreal at 10 hours, 48 minutes.

If you add Google estimates for the Canadian parts of the shortcut route to Cianbro's rough estimate for the proposed road, a Moncton-Montreal trip still takes nine hours, 55 minutes, and that's without accounting for border delays. If Quebec were to upgrade the two-lane road from Coburn Gore to Sherbrooke, it would likely shave an hour from this route, but it is unclear whether the province wishes to do so.

"If you can get to Montreal a little faster and can get loaded for the next day, there are lots of advantages," said Jean Marc Picard of the Atlantic Canada Trucking Association, based in the Moncton suburb of Dieppe. "But we would have to see what the cost of the tolls are as well and look at the border delays."

SAVING TIME AND FUEL, NOT TOLLS

A 2008 Cianbro study of the highway put forth three toll scenarios for the purposes of determining the project's financial viability.

They ranged from $25 for a passenger car full trip and $50 for a truck to $100 for a car and $200 for a truck. The report said the latter scenario represented "the 'ideal' situation which would achieve an acceptable (internal rate of return) for the project and equity holders." Vigue said actual tolls have yet to be determined, but that the car rate will be lower than $100.

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