The debate over the proposed east-west highway in Maine is expected to heat up at the end of this month, as the legislature will be holding a hearing on six bills that range from ending the state funding to study the project to requiring the state to look at improving existing roads and railroads for east-west transportation. That debate recently came to Eastport, with developers from the Cianbro Corporation courting the port authority board and members of a coalition opposed to the project both speaking in the same room at Shead High School but on two different evenings.
On April 16, Darryl Brown, Cianbro's program manager for the project, gave the same presentation that he had previously given in Eastport in January, as the company sought the port authority's support because of the highway's potential to help the port grow. "Maine is perfectly positioned to become a major player in world trade," he said, with Canada now having a four-lane highway to Calais and with four-lane highways extending from Montreal to Chicago. The east coast, though, does not have good access to the Midwest, the manufacturing center of the U.S., because of the lack of an east-west route connecting those highways. Brown said an east-west highway in the state "will provide the connectivity for Maine businesses to participate in the global markets" and connect them with the Midwest. He noted that Lincoln Paper and Tissue has estimated that the highway would save the company $2 million a year in transportation costs.
While the route has not yet been completely determined for the private toll highway, Brown said there probably would be eight interchanges in the state, including ones at Calais and possibly at Route 214, which would provide access to the port of Eastport. Because the road would have to go south of the Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge, he said he expects it could go through the towns of Meddybemps and Cooper. Brown reviewed how the route is being determined and noted a great deal of effort has been made to avoid homes. The corridor would occupy 13,333 acres in the state, which is about half the size of a typical Maine town. Towns would receive property taxes, and the state would benefit from gas taxes paid by truckers. The corridor also would provide a trail for snowmobiles, ATVs or hikers.
While some have criticized the proposal as benefiting only Canada and not Maine, Brown stated, "Canada is not our enemy. They're our friends." He noted that the state depends a great deal on Canada, with six of the 10 largest investors in Maine being Canadian companies.
For the port of Eastport, Brown noted that ships that can carry over 13,000 containers, triple the current number, will be able to go through the Panama and Suez canals once they are enlarged. The ships require 50 feet of water, and Eastport, with a depth of 64 feet, is the deepest port in the continental U.S. Other ports are spending billions to accommodate the larger vessels, and Brown said that Eastport also needs to be prepared to handle them. "Eastport has to be in a position where it can make that happen." Combined with a rail extension close to the port, the highway and the port "could be a game changer for Maine in the next decade and beyond. We have the opportunity to change how things are done. We need to think big," Brown said. "We have to stop exporting our children out of the state."
Board member Bob Peacock noted that Maersk Line, one of the world's largest shipping companies, will no longer be shipping from the Far East through the Panama Canal but instead will be sending ships through the Suez Canal. The port of Savannah, Ga., is spending $20 billion to dredge to a depth of just 45 feet. With Eastport being the closest U.S. port to Europe, he said, "Our biggest assets are our depth and our position."
Port Director Chris Gardner recommended that the port authority board look favorably on the project, noting, "Connectivity to the rest of the world is what will make us live or die here." The board then voted unanimously to support the project.
Potential drawbacks outlined
The following evening, two members of the Stop the East-West Corridor coalition, statewide coordinator Chris Buchanan and Paul Schroeder of Orono, spoke to an audience about how the coalition believes the project would hurt Maine.
Buchanan questioned whether the corridor actually would bring more cargo to be shipped through Eastport. Noting that other East Coast ports are investing to be able to handle the larger ships and that the port at Halifax, which has rail connections and space for handling containers, is operating at only 40% of capacity, she commented, "For Eastport to receive super huge ships might not be feasible."
If one's goal is to "move more stuff," then the priority should be to focus on the existing rail lines, Buchanan said. If the goal is not to move more stuff, because importing goods from China places local economies at risk, the east-west corridor then poses a serious threat to the economy in Maine. The global economy looks for goods to be produced where labor is the cheapest, and the coalition is promoting the need for cooperatives, rather than the extraction of more gas and oil, in order to provide for a sustainable economic future in the state.
Schroeder noted that a 1999 state-sponsored study looked at what had happened around new highways in Vermont and New Hampshire and found that population centers "might have had a bit of a boost," but rural areas did not. He said the disadvantages for many communities would outweigh any advantages, with the highways not bringing any manufacturing jobs but only trade and service jobs to service centers. Communities could be hurt economically by the bypass effect created by a new highway.
According to Schroeder, the 1999 study found that the cost for a new road could not be paid for entirely through tolls and that it would be better to upgrade existing roads. A 2008 study conducted for Cianbro determined that an east-west highway would not be economically feasible unless it was publicly subsidized or unless utilities were in the corridor. Because of the tolls that would be set by the investors, the road would be used mostly by trucking companies, with little accessibility for the public, Buchanan speculated.
The proposed corridor would be the largest construction project ever in Maine. Although the developers have stated that the permitting would be for only a four-lane highway, and that any utilities that might use the corridor would have to be permitted later, Buchanan noted that Cianbro has called the project a transportation, communications and utility corridor. The coalition believes that natural gas pipelines, oil pipelines carrying tar sands oil from Alberta, bulk water lines and transmission lines for wind projects in Maine all could be placed in the corridor. Although the right-of-way for the highway is now proposed to be 500 feet wide, the 2008 study had looked at a 2,000-foot right-of-way.
The coalition members noted that at different times the proposal has been referred to both as a public-private partnership and as a private project. While hearings would be held on such a project if it was being publicly funded, they are not required for private projects. Also, a 2010 public-private partnership law includes a confidentiality clause so that the Maine Department of Transportation (DOT) does not have to disclose information about public-private partnership projects. With state involvement, eminent domain could be an option for the project. Although Cianbro representatives have stated that eminent domain would not be used, Schroeder noted that the U.S. Supreme Court found in a 2005 case involving New London, Conn., that a municipality can take land by eminent domain and then turn it over to a private developer if the municipality believes that would provide a greater public benefit.
Buchanan noted that municipal ordinances could not stop the highway, since private corporations are considered the equal of the state, while municipalities have to follow laws set by the state. Some municipalities are now passing rights-based ordinances that assert that they have the authority to protect certain fundamental rights, such as clean water, air and soil, that are higher than state law.
Bills to be considered
The legislature's Transportation Committee will hold a hearing on six bills concerning the east-west highway on Tuesday, April 30. The hearing will be held at 1 p.m. in room 126 of the State House.
Several of the bills refer to the legislature's authorization in 2012 to spend $300,000 for a feasibility study of the project. LD 362, sponsored by Senator Linda Valentino of Saco, would prohibit the use of public funds for a study for a transportation facility funded privately. Senator Edward Mazurek of Rockland is sponsoring two of the bills: LD 870, which would direct the DOT to study existing highways and railroads to determine the most efficient options for improving east-west transportation in the state, and LD 985, which would prohibit any reimbursement to the DOT for costs for the east-west highway feasibility study and would specify that any documents that were created are public documents. LD 1209, sponsored by Rep. Katherine Cassidy of Lubec, would repeal the legislature's resolve authorizing the feasibility study and would prohibit the use of state funds for the study. LD 1269, sponsored by Rep. Ralph Chapman of Brooksville, would require an independent analysis of the east-west highway, to be funded by the private developer, and would require that any plans for the project be made available to the public and would impose public hearing requirements. LD 1304, sponsored by Rep. McCabe of Skowhegan, would establish a commission to oversee further study of the highway.