Although limited by time constraints in asking questions about the east-west highway project, the nearly 40 people who attended the forum in Eastport pressed the project developer on issues ranging from how the project would benefit Maine, why rail isn't being considered instead and how much the truck traffic to the Port of Eastport might increase. The informational meetings, held January 18 in Eastport and Calais, were presented by the Cianbro Corporation, which is proposing the project, and the Sunrise County Economic Council.
In his presentation, which took up most of the meeting, Darryl Brown, the program manager for the east-west highway project for Cianbro, pointed to the project's selling points: attracting additional investment to Maine's rural communities; reducing travel time; improving utility transmission; and revitalizing Maine's ports. "It can make Maine the breadbasket of the Northeast," he said.
Noting that "people are leaving the northern part of the state in droves" and pointing to statistics on the economy, unemployment rate and median age that all show that northern Maine is not faring well, Brown stated, "We believe this will be an economic booster for all of Maine's economy."
The 220-mile, 500-foot-wide privately funded corridor would run from Calais to Coburn Gore, and the four-lane highway would provide easier access to the major markets in the Midwest for the Maritimes. Brown noted that Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont are the only states lacking an east-west transportation route. Linking to the trade gateways of Montreal and Chicago is "critical to Maine's economy," Brown said, noting that Lincoln Paper and Tissue has estimated it would save over $1 million a year in the company's transportation costs. He added that privately funded infrastructure projects are increasingly being undertaken, since public funding has dried up. At least six interchanges are planned for access to the highway in the state, and a recreational trail would be developed within the corridor.
Brown outlined how the route would be determined, with Cianbro considering property lines, the avoidance of homes, topography, wetlands, conservation lands, deer yards, vernal pools and other environmental concerns. The company is committed to providing wildlife crossings, and eminent domain would not be used for any land acquisition for the road. "It will be the most environmentally compliant road in North America," he said.
However, a recent Sierra Club national report cites the highway proposal as one of the worst transportation projects in the United States, noting potential negative impacts on Maine's air and water quality and critical wildlife habitat. The report states that similar highway proposals have been studied and rejected numerous times in the past and that the privately funded highway connecting the Canadian provinces of Quebec and New Brunswick through forested regions in Maine would serve large industry and trucking interests at the expense of Maine communities. Sierra Club Maine is advocating that the state consider revitalizing the existing freight rail line, which parallels the proposed highway route.
Truck traffic to port
During the forum, Brown said the project would help the Port of Eastport attract additional markets. Container ship traffic is the most efficient means of transporting goods, and that traffic is expected to triple from 2008 to 2024. With the expansion of the Panama Canal, many major ports are having to dredge or cannot handle the larger post-Panamax vessels. "There will be a huge need for ports to handle these larger ships," Brown said, noting that the Port of Eastport has the greatest depth, at 64 feet, of any port in the continental U.S.
The east-west highway route would go south of the Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge, which would provide closer connectivity for the Port of Eastport. Although the proposal does not at present indicate an access point for the toll highway near the port, Brown said an interchange, possibly near Route 214 in Charlotte, could be included. Questions were raised about the estimated increase in truck traffic in the Eastport area, and Brown said more work needs to be done on any estimates.
Concerning why a rail project is not being undertaken instead, Brown said that rail works best for transporting bulk materials but trucks are better for "just in time" delivery, a production strategy used by certain businesses and industries. "The best model is to have rail, trucks and ports." Eastport Port Director Chris Gardner commented that port officials know that there is a limit on how much truck traffic can be handled at the port. "Rail connectivity has to be part of our future," he said. "Without that, we can't grow to meet our capacity. We want this to mesh with the highway."
Benefits for Maine?
Others observed that the highway would help Canada a great deal, particularly the Nova Scotian ports at Halifax and Melford, but they wondered how it would help Maine. Suzanne Brown of Milbridge asked how the project would bring money into the state. Noting that she is invested in a farm that serves a local instead of a global market and that the poor soil in Washington County prevents local farmers from competing globally, she said, "I don't see the highway addressing the state's economic issues. I don't think it's the answer." Brown responded that the project is being done for Maine, not Canada, and noted that there are good farmland soils in some areas of Maine. He said that Canadian truckers are excited about the project and that they would be paying for the highway through tolls.
Pam Dyer Stewart of Harrington asked what would happen to families that are displaced by the corridor. She said the toll highway would "suck the life out of downtowns" and that the development of distribution centers along the highway, with big-box stores, would harm local small businesses. Studies have shown that such highways do not benefit a state and hurt local downtowns, she said. Brown replied that Cianbro is "committed to limiting the impact to property owners as much as possible."
Steve Koenig, executive director of Project SHARE (Salmon Habitat and River Enhancement), noted that the corridor would cut across rivers that have an endangered species listing for Atlantic salmon, and Brown said Cianbro would work with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and other groups on that issue.
Concerning possible use of the corridor for power lines or pipelines, Brown says in an interview that there are no plans at this time, although a fiber optic line along the highway corridor might be a possibility. "Down the line there may be a need" for other uses of the corridor, he says. The permitting process for this project, which is estimated will take three years, will be only for the highway. A transmission line or pipeline would have to proceed through a separate permitting process in the future.