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

(Continued from page 2)

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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

The highway will clearly provide a shortcut for goods and people traveling east-west from Saint John, southwestern New Brunswick and eastern Maine.

"I think for our region of the province, it certainly is a great option for us to get to Quebec and the states and for some will cut four hours off that trip," said Imelda Gilman, president of the Saint John Board of Trade. "For other parts of New Brunswick, PEI and Nova Scotia, it will really depend on where they are transporting the goods, and it might still be easier to do the traditional route over the northern part of Maine."

Rail advocates say they will become more competitive with the road if fuel prices continue to rise over the long term.

"It's like the Erie Canal -- it was privately funded and just about the time it was done, the railroad sped past it," said Anthony Donovan of the Maine Rail Transit Coalition. "About the time that highway gets built, the rail is going to zoom past because the trucks are not going to be able to afford the fuel."

Not everyone agrees. Former MDOT Commissioner John Melrose, a transportation sector lobbyist, noted that trucks have a critical advantage.

"Our economies have moved in recent decades to a 'just in time' model, where there's a lot of pressure to be able to call up a factory and have X number of widgets delivered in three days," he said. "Rail can't do that, at least as it is configured in Maine. Rail ends up with high volume, low-sensitivity cargos."

Because it's a private highway, Melrose and others noted, the Cianbro road could allow larger, heavier tandem truck rigs that are legal in Canada to travel the route, further improving the economics. "When you look at the time savings and efficiencies that are involved, it opens some whole new dimensions," he added.

Northernmost Maine and northwestern New Brunswick fear they'd be harmed by the shortcut, which would encourage traffic to bypass their area.

"I understand that construction jobs are important to Maine, but if all we're doing is building a road to get Canadians to and fro easier, I don't see how it's going to help my part of the state," said Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, who represents the Madawaska area. "I see it cutting off northern Maine. There's nobody in my district who sees it as a positive thing."

Brian Lee Crowley, managing director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute for Public Policy, an Ottawa think tank, said the road could offer significant benefits, but its costs must be taken into account. "The question would be whether the tolls could be set at a level so that the savings in time and fuel can be split between the people using the road and the people building it," he said. "If the savings are large enough, then both parties benefit and you have a deal."

A GAME CHANGER FOR MAINE?

Vigue and other supporters of the project come at it from a different vantage point. They say the project shouldn't be seen as a response to current or projected demand in a world that currently lacks such a highway. Rather, the highway itself would completely transform the equation, facilitating an economic transformation in metro Bangor, the port of Eastport and a great swath of rural Maine. Take a step back, they urge, take a risk and dream big.

There's no doubting Vigue's passion about the project -- this is personal for him. Despite having what he calls "one of the most qualified work forces in the country," interior Maine has been suffering for decades, losing population and vitality, and something must be done to turn it around.

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