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 3)

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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

"So how do we capitalize on this strength?" he asked. "How will this state move forward? How will we not destroy the quality of life we enjoy? If we don't change something and don't improve, I don't see things getting any better."

In an increasingly globalized, just-in-time economy, interior Maine's fundamental problem is its isolation generally, and its lack of road connections to the industrial Midwest in particular, he said.

Connect Maine to Montreal and Toronto, Detroit and Chicago, and you're connecting current and future Maine companies to the supply chains of North America's great manufacturing centers, he said, and those manufacturing centers not just to the Port of Saint John, but to Eastport, allegedly the deepest water port in the entire country. His argument invites one to see the highway not primarily as a way for Canadian goods to transit Maine, but as a way for American goods to transit eastern Canada to and from Maine.

The highway, Vigue said, will have interchanges at I-95 and routes 15, 23, 201 and 27, thus serving the Bangor, Dover-Foxcroft, Jackman and Eustis areas en route.

"We're not just connecting Maine to Canada on two sides, we're connecting the interior of Maine," he said. "What's the future going to look like? I believe in a very strong way that Maine has the potential of becoming a major gateway, and the true benefit is that we will have both north-south and east-west (highway) connections."

Former Bangor Mayor Tim Woodcock, a longtime advocate of an east-west highway, thinks it would transform his part of the state.

"I think most people who live in this neck of the woods understand that we are remote and inaccessible, and if you want to compete on an even footing in sectors of the economy that are sensitive to transportation costs, being remote and inaccessible is a bad way to do it," he said. "This project would go a long way in reversing that."

The highway, Woodcock said, would make it as easy for someone in Bangor to get to Montreal as to get to Boston. It would connect the city with the St. Lawrence Seaway and "an international intermodal hub of hemispheric proportions." Industry would follow, perhaps creating conditions that would reinvigorate rail as well.

"I don't know if they build it, if they'll come," he said of the highway, "but I do know that if they don't build it, they won't come."

MDOT STUDY COULD DETERMINE FATE

Perry Newman, president of the Atlantica Group, a Portland-based trade consultancy, said the potential benefits will be large.

"I don't see how it can be the case that creating great access to markets for one's own manufacturers can't make you more competitive," he said. "It gives the economic development folks a tangible asset to put in front of potential investors and say, you can be in the North Woods of Maine and create a beautiful product and not be so remote from the market that you are falling off the edge of the Earth."

Vigue also said he's "very confident" that Atlantic Canadians will choose his highway over the Trans-Canada Highway, and that it will attract Canadian tourists to Sugarloaf and other Maine destinations. He said he would never ask the state to use eminent domain to seize property en route, nor would he ask for public "handouts" of any kind for the private road which, he said, will pay property taxes.

"Let's have the courage to invest here and to believe in the people," he says. "We know the federal and state government don't have the funds to make these investments."

The new MDOT study -- a $300,000 analysis paid for by taxpayers -- is due to be released in January 2013, and will be eagerly awaited by elected officials.

"The trick will be to do the analysis and see what advantage the state of Maine will get from this business," said Sen. Roger Sherman, R-Houlton. "We'll have to look at it with an engineer's eye and an economist's pencil. What the study says will probably dictate if it happens."

Staff Writer Colin Woodard can be contacted at 791-6317 or at:

cwoodard@mainetoday.com

 

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