Taking Its Toll Is Maine ready for a North Woods highway?

Taking Its Toll

Is Maine ready for a North Woods highway?

The asphalt was barely cool on the last four-lane section of Interstate 95 in 1981 when people in Maine began talking about building a matching superhighway from east to west. Over the decades since, the idea rose and fell almost as often as the tide, each time sounding plausible and each time always floating just beyond the fingertips of the possible.

Now the east-west highway is back again, this time with a twist. Rather than depending on public financing to upgrade existing highways in a jury-rigged network zigzagging across the state and bisecting dozens of cities and small towns, Peter Vigue, the president and CEO of Cianbro Construction Company, is proposing a privately financed and privately built toll road from Calais to Coburn Gore.

The billion-dollar, four-lane highway would run along the route of the privately owned Stud Mill Road between Baileyville and Costigan, then south of Moosehead to Route 27 north of Eustis. It would have no weight limits — unlike Interstate 95 north of Augusta — and allow tandem-trailer trucks. Its natural market would be the two thousand trucks that cross Maine’s borders with Canada each day and the four thousand more that make the trip over the top of the state on Canadian highways, along with other travelers looking to slice four hours off their travel time between St. John and Quebec City.

Vigue is convinced it will rebuild the economy of northern Maine, put the state square in the center of a major transportation trend, improve relations with Canada, and bring new energy sources into Maine. And he’s convinced it can be finished in five years.

This is no pie-in-the-sky midnight rambling. Cianbro is the largest construction company in the state, one of the largest in New England, with jobs under its belt from Maine to the Gulf of Mexico. Its projects here have included building floating oil rig platforms on the Portland waterfront and the recently erected Penobscot Narrows Bridge between Prospect and Verona Island. Vigue says he already has support from a New York City bank, commitments from landowners along the route, a partnership with an international engineering firm, and Cianbro people on the ground in eastern Maine laying the foundations for the project. He’s working on the application process for the permits the project needs from the Land Use Regulation Commission and other agencies. He’s moving so fast that his plans haven’t even had time to generate much opposition from wilderness and conservation groups.

New public highway construction in Maine has dropped significantly in recent years. Costs have ballooned as petroleum and material prices have soared. Meanwhile, funding shortfalls due to lower fuel-tax collections have forced the Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT) to concentrate on keeping up the roads it has rather than build new ones. If a new cross-Maine highway is to be built within the next few years — and there are many residents who question that need — the money for it will not come from public coffers.

Vigue says that frustration over a slow-moving state government and the fear of missing obvious opportunities have been prime motivators for his campaign. “I don’t think the state has the financial wherewithal anymore,” he says bluntly, “and it hasn’t demonstrated the necessary focus on an issue that’s very important.”

He also believes that a new highway would play an important role in rejuvenating the lagging economies and shrinking populations of northern and eastern Maine. “I travel a good bit out of state, and I see how robust the economic activity is out there,” he explains. “Every time I come back to Maine I say to myself, ‘why not here, too?’ ”

One reason, he believes, is the perception that Maine is the end of the road. “If you look at a map of the United States, one would conclude that we are out there at the end of nowhere,” he says. The truth, he counters, is that Maine is exactly in the middle of the combined New England-Maritime Canada commercial area, a region that some promoters have taken to calling Atlantica. “We’ve got location, location, location. We’re in a great spot, and we’ve got to think of ourselves in those terms,” he says.

Vigue first presented his ideas to top state officials three years ago, “but it didn’t spark a lot of attention,” he recalls. The proposal languished for more than a year until he learned that a new million-unit-capacity container port was being built in Melford, Nova Scotia, capable of handing super-large container ships too big for even St. John’s port facilities. Cargo arriving there would travel by road and rail throughout northeastern North America and as far west as Chicago and Toronto. “So if you look at what’s
happening there and you look at where Maine is, the question becomes, how do we capitalize on the opportunity this creates?” he asks.

Vigue talks about the project’s attributes with an almost evangelical enthusiasm, a fervor that echoes the excitement that once characterized the engineers of the Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT) as they described plans for an east-west highway back in the late 1990s. Today Greg Nadeau, deputy MDOT commissioner, speaks of “incremental investment” and “macro-level planning” by an MDOT that has been weakened by stagnating revenues and new pressures to maintain the bridges and highways it already has. “As we do projects along the east-west corridors we identified in our planning studies, we’re acquiring rights of way sufficient for future expansion,” Nadeau explains. “When traffic counts warrant it, we can go in and expand those corridors relatively easily.”

The most obvious improvement has been the rebuilding of large sections of Route 9, the infamous Airline between Brewer and Calais. The highway today is almost unrecognizable from the narrow, twisting, diving road that once terrified tourists and intimidated veteran truckers. Work recently began on a third border crossing in Calais that will speed the passage of commercial traffic between the two nations.

But the possibility of the state of Maine building an east-west highway recedes farther into the distance with each new funding analysis. MDOT’s most recent ten-year plan shows a shortfall of $2.2 billion just to maintain existing infrastructure, Nadeau says. The department and the legislature are studying the use of tolls and other alternative revenue sources, but they’ll be a tough sell to voters who already consider their highway taxes too high.

“I would say that we’re having a significantly difficult job of maintaining our current infrastructure with the funds available,” says Senator Dennis Damon, the Trenton Democrat who chairs the legislature’s Transportation Committee. “We just received a report that fuel-tax revenues were down in July and August by $3.5 million. That doesn’t portend well for the rest of the year. It’s unrealistic to me that we can add new infrastructure to our transportation system funded in a purely public way.”

Nadeau says he is somewhat familiar with Vigue’s toll-road idea, but he speaks cautiously about both its possibility and its impact on the state’s plans. “If such a highway were done privately, it obviously would change our strategic planning,” he allows.

It might do more than that. The state invested $70 million over fifteen years to rebuild the Airline to make it friendlier to Canadian truckers and tourists. The first section of Vigue’s toll road would parallel the highway along the private Stud Mill Road to the north. Competition from a four-lane, high-speed superhighway would turn the Airline into a minor local road again.

Damon has known about Vigue’s plan for almost two years, and he considers the idea feasible. “It’s something that bears serious discussion,” he says. “I suppose we would have to look for adverse public impact, but it’s hard for me to find any right now.”

“It all stinks,” declares Robert Kimber, of Temple. Kimber is a longtime member of the Friends of the Boundary Mountains, which has traditionally opposed earlier east-west highway proposals. He emphasizes that the organization hasn’t taken a position on Vigue’s specific proposal — “we’re up to our ears in wind power develop-ments right now” — but he calls it another example of the massive development pressures the North Woods face.

“The North Woods are being sold down the pike,” he says. “Look at Plum Creek’s plans for Moosehead Lake. They want to turn it into Winnipesaukee north. Now someone wants to build a new highway through here and spread development even farther. All these developments are just more nails in the coffin of the North Woods. The pressures on the Maine landscape are transformative and huge, and they’ll change the whole notion of what the North Woods have been.”

The last flurry of east-west highway activity dates to the late 1990s, and many of the organizations that formed to support and oppose the idea have either closed up shop or moved on to other issues. The phone number for the pro-highway Maine Citizens for Increased Jobs and Safety in Bangor has been disconnected, although the Web site is still live. The East-West Highway Forum Web site, a collection of articles and essays opposing the idea, was last updated in April 2004. Both the Natural Resources Council of Maine and the Friends of the Boundary Mountains say they haven’t had time to analyze the new proposal in the press of dealing with issues ranging from wind-power development to Plum Creek.

Anti-highway activist Tim Sullivan, who was arrested several years ago while protesting a widening project on Route 1 in Warren, now manages a co-op and is involved in the local food movement. Sullivan questions the idea that a new highway would create jobs. “If that were true, places like Lewiston-Auburn and Medway would be thriving,” he argues. “Every town on I-95 would have more jobs than they can use.”

The battle over a new east-west highway “would be worse than Plum Creek,” Sullivan promises. “This project would be an environmental nightmare. And it would be amazing if they got every landowner along the route to agree. If they use eminent domain, the property rights people will jump all over them.”

Sullivan says that there’s a lot of “activist fatigue” in Maine due to ongoing controversies such as Plum Creek and the Iraq war. “But I guess if they’re lining up investors, it’s time to sound the battle cry. If [Vigue] is crazy enough to go forward with this, then he’ll have a fight on his hands.”

Rising energy prices and potential problems with oil supplies are arguments in favor of building the highway, Vigue says. “If we build this east-west highway, the Canadians will be very happy. It costs a minimum of a hundred dollars an hour to run a tractor-trailer truck. If you go over the top of Maine, that’s an extra four hours, four hundred dollars. If they think they could save four hours for a toll of fifty dollars, they’d jump on it,” he says. “And that means Maine gets a free highway.”

Whether Maine wants it or not remains to be seen.


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