AUGUSTA — On Feb. 19, the Maine Sunday Telegram questioned support for L.D. 1671’s state funding of an independent financial feasibility study for building a proposed east-west toll road from Calais to Coburn Gore (Our View, “State should be wary of private highway study”).

The editorial contrasts with the Telegram’s longstanding advocacy for an east-west highway. In April 2003, the Telegram ran a full-page editorial, complete with maps of proposed routes, advocating for construction of an east-west highway.

That editorial was clear on the rationale for the project – to connect central and northern Maine to the world and create opportunities in a region sorely in need of them. It would be difficult to find a more cogent, concise east-west highway justification than the Telegram’s 2003 editorial.

A review of a map of Maine and its neighbors, and of Maine’s roads, explains the reason behind the project. Maine’s highest-quality road – the safest, most efficient – is Interstate 95 running north-south, Kittery to Houlton. This high-quality piece of infrastructure is essential to the economic health of the regions it serves.

But state roads connecting to I-95 do not begin to match its safety and efficiency. As part of our Interstate system, Maine looks like a transportation peninsula: one road in, one road out.

Of course, central and northern Maine are not part of a peninsula. They are part of a broader region reaching east to the city of Saint John, the magnificent harbor at Halifax, and 2.5 million people of Atlantic Canada; and west to Montreal – a multi-modal hub of continental significance with the more than 7 million people of Quebec.

As the crow flies, Montreal is about the same distance to Bangor as it is to Boston, but getting to Montreal from Bangor takes far longer and, because of road quality, involves much greater risks. Quite frankly, getting in and out of central and northern Maine is expensive.

In 2003, Fraser Paper’s head of logistics told a Bangor conference that Fraser’s transportation costs in Maine were higher than anywhere else in North America.

When Georgia-Pacific announced closure of its Old Town mill, it cited only two reasons – one was high transportation costs.

When a Maine entrepreneur pulled her business out of northern Maine and relocated to the South, she explained that, among other things, her business was burdened by high transportation costs. When she decided to relocate, she looked for places where north-south and east-west highways intersected. After she relocated, her transportation costs plummeted.

How many businesses considering relocation take one look at Maine’s transportation map and rule out central and northern Maine because its inferior transportation system isolates it from its neighbors and the broader international region’s multi-modal systems? And how many other businesses in this region tire of the expense and leave without ever telling us why?

The people of northern and central Maine – in fact, all the people of Maine – have a strong interest in connecting this region to the world around it. Now, through the ingenuity and commitment of Cianbro, Maine people have the opportunity to achieve this goal without significant state expense. Cianbro is proposing a toll road that will pay for itself.

We believe there are strong reasons the state should fund L.D. 1671’s independent financial feasibility study.

First, this project proposes a major piece of infrastructure across Maine. We believe the state should satisfy itself that this is a financially viable project.

If built, the toll road would be open to the traveling public. We believe the state has every interest in ensuring the proposed road maximizes traveler safety as well as efficiency.

This large project will inevitably generate questions, possibly opposition. We believe the state should select the consultant to perform the financial feasibility study, set the criteria for that consultant, and, by paying for the study, make sure the consultant understands it is answerable to the state and to the state alone.

We believe this project holds great potential for central and northern Maine. But even if we were skeptical of the project, we would still support state funding for the independent financial feasibility study. This proposal deserves a rigorous and exacting appraisal of its financial viability. L.D. 1671 will ensure the state itself will set the standards for that analysis and, when it is done, the analyst will submit its findings to the party that paid for it: the state of Maine. The people of northern and central Maine have a strong interest in connecting this region to the world around it.

Sen. Ron Collins, R-Wells, and Rep. Rich Cebra, R-Naples, chair the Legislature’s Transportation Committee.

— Special to The Press Herald

Correction: This story was revised at 3:07 p.m., March 6, 2012, to state that the proposed east-west toll road would extend from Calais to Coburn Gore, Maine.