Gateway to opportunity or toll on the environment?
by Edgar Allen Beem
In March the Maine Legislature approved and in April Governor Paul LePage signed into law LD 1671, a measure appropriating three hundred thousand dollars for an investment grade feasibility study of whether it would be a good deal for a private investor to build, own, and operate a 230-mile, four-lane divided east-west toll highway between Calais and Coburn Gore. Plans call for the study to be completed by an independent contractor, to be selected by the Maine Department of Transportation, and a report to be submitted to the legislature by January 15, 2013.
Backers of the East-West Highway see it as an economic development project with the potential to revitalize central Maine’s depressed economy. Opponents see it as another example, like the Plum Creek resort development around Moosehead Lake, of large-scale private developments threatening Maine’s priceless natural environment.
“We thought an East-West Highway had the potential to improve the economy enough to be worth funding the study,” says Senator Douglas Thomas (R-Ripley), the bill’s sponsor. “The state is only funding sixty thousand dollars. The rest is federal money. Those who eventually build the highway will pay the state back. Win, win, and win for Maine.”
“A new highway would unnecessarily fragment our forests, with adverse impacts to our wildlife, lakes, and rivers,” counters Natural Resources Council of Maine Executive Director Lisa Pohlmann. “It would destroy areas that are important to Maine people for hunting, fishing, and camping and to those businesses that rely on the vast undeveloped North Woods, including sporting camps, guides, restaurants, and lodges.”
“People in opposition say the road will bisect the North Maine Woods and destroy the North Maine Woods,” argues Peter Vigue, CEO of Cianbro construction company in Pittsfield, and the prime mover behind the East-West Highway proposal, “but this is not the North Maine Woods. It’s not so. It’s not so.”
And so the lines have been drawn for what promises to be another protracted battle between the forces of development and those of conservation.
Because most highways in northern New England run roughly north and south, an East-West Highway has been proposed, studied, and even partially funded for decades, at least since the 1960s â some say since the 1930s. But there are two things very different about this latest highway proposal â the route and the funding.
Most past East-West Highway studies, including a state study in 1999 and a Canadian-American regional study in 2008, focused on a publicly funded highway crossing the state along existing roads. What’s being proposed now is a privately funded highway mostly following logging roads through the woods.
The most common East-West Highway proposal has been to improve Route 9, the so-called Airline, from Calais to Bangor and then upgrade Route 2 west to the border at Bethel.
In explaining the Natural Resources Council of Maine’s opposition to the highway, director Lisa Pohlmann notes, “In 1999, the Maine Department of Transportation extensively studied the idea and concluded that a new East-West Highway in Maine was not economically justified. Instead, they recommended that existing routes, including Route 9 and Route 2, be upgraded, and that has happened.”
But Peter Vigue calls the Route 9 to Route 2 corridor “a highway to nowhere” because it runs into the White Mountains. “Today, without connectivity, we are doomed,” says Vigue. “If you’re going to manufacture and produce anything, you’ve got to be connected.”
Vigue believes it makes more sense to create a shortcut across Maine from New Brunswick to Quebec, so that Canadian truckers can save time, Maine companies can more easily reach western markets, and tourists can move back and fourth between Canada and Maine. To that end he has proposed an East-West Highway that makes maximum use of private right-of-ways owned by large landowners.
Vigue’s 230-mile East-West Highway would follow the Stud Mill Road haulroad from Calais to Costigan where it would cross the Penobscot River. From there it would strike out northwest cross-country, running south of Dover-Foxcroft and Guilford and crossing the Appalachian Trail somewhere in the vicinity of Blanchard. Though he has a huge, detailed map rolled up in his Pittsfield office, Vigue is reluctant to be too specific about some sections of the route for fear that opponents will try to persuade property owners not to sell.
North of Blanchard, the highway would take off over logging roads again, following the Shirley Tote Road to Lake Moxie Road to the Forks. West of the Forks, it would follow the Lower Enchanted Road to Grand Falls Road to Flagstaff Road north of Flagstaff Lake. Flagstaff Road connects with Route 27 north of Eustis. The East-West Highway would take 27 to the border at Coburn Gore. For the new highway to continue on to Sherbrooke, Quebec, and Montreal, the Canadian government would need to build an additional sixty miles of it across the border.
“A lot of people are saying the Canadians are the beneficiaries, but so are the people of Maine,” insists Peter Vigue. “And who are the Canadians? They’re some of the top investors in the state.” The PowerPoint presentation that Vigue has been giving all over the state identifies McCain Foods (potatoes), Irving (gas and forest products), Oxford Frozen Foods, Emera (Bangor Hydro, Maine Public Service), TD Bank, and Brookfield Renewable Energy Partner sas key Canadian investors in Maine. While tourists and Maine companies are expected to use the East-West Highway, it will initially serve as a shortcut across Maine for Canadian truckers. “It’s a time factor,” says Vigue. “Time is money.”
“The feasibility study,” explains Maine Department of Transportation Commissioner David Bernhardt, “will look at timing and what would freight moving companies be willing to pay to move across this highway.”
There has been speculation that truck tolls on the four-lane highway, which will allow heavier Canadian weight limits and seventy-five miles per hour speeds, will be between one hundred and two hundred dollars. “It costs between $125 and $150 an hour to operate a truck,” says Vigue, “so if it can save just two hours, it’s worth one hundred dollars in tolls.”
Vigue also argues that a shortcut across Maine will reduce the time and, therefore, the fuel consumption that it takes to get from the Atlantic coast to midwestern markets, thus reducing the carbon footprint of truck traffic.
We’re running out of fossil fuel,” objects Chris Buchanan, a Belgrade resident and an organizer for Defending Water for Life, the organization that has taken the early lead in opposing the East-West Highway. “Why would we back new infrastructure that depends on a dying culture?”
Defending Water for Life, which has organized against large-scale industrial water extraction by companies such as NestlÃ©, got involved because it is concerned that an East-West Highway will open up Maine for bulk water transport, both over the road and via pipeline. “We don’t see any public benefits,” says Buchanan. “It’s really the state using taxpayers’s money to fund a private project that is not going to benefit Maine people or the Maine environment.”
Vigue says his proposed route “threads a needle” by avoiding water bodies, sensitive ecosystems, and the large land holdings in north-central Maine of conservationists such as Burt’s Bees founder Roxanne Quimby and cable TV baron John Malone, a Boothbay summer resident and America’s largest landowner. “We want to create a world-class corridor that will deal with the issues of major concern to the environmental community,” says Vigue.
But Jym St. Pierre, Maine director of RESTORE: The North Woods, the environmental group leading the effort to create a Maine Woods National Park, points out that the proposed East-West Highway would “cross or come perilously close to at least twenty significant conservation areas,” among them Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge, Sunkhaze Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, the Appalachian Trail, and Chain of Ponds Public Reserved Lands.
“It is perverse,” charges St. Pierre, “that the Maine Legislature has endorsed and given money to a road study that will, on balance, harm our state, while opposing a study of [Maine Woods National Park] that could provide enormous environmental, recreational, and economic benefits to Maine. Our public priorities are badly out of kilter.”
The proposed route also comes close to Maine Huts & Trails hiking trails in western Maine.
“Given its potential proximity to sections of our existing system,” says David Herring, Maine Huts & Trails’s development director and special consultant “it is our plan to work closely with the developer behind the proposed plan as well as state and local officials to ensure any potential negative impacts to the recreational experience at Maine Huts & Trails are minimized.”
Who the developer of the East-West Highway might be, should the feasibility study support going ahead with the project, is as yet unknown. Peter Vigue says he has been talking with potential investors, “entities with huge capital such as pension funds and some banks.”
In the wake of the market meltdown of 2008, says Vigue, many investors are now interested in “hard, tangle assets that create continuous revenue.” The builder, owner, and operator of an East-West Highway would recoup its investment through toll revenues.
Private investment in public infrastructure has a long history in Europe, but private funding of U.S. infrastructure is fairly new. In 2008, for example, Virginia entered into a $2 billion public-private partnership with the Texas-based Fluor Corp. and Australian toll highway operator Transurban to add a fourteen-mile, four-lane stretch of toll road to the Capital Beltway. The same year, the City of Chicago entered into a $2.5 billion deal to lease operation and maintenance of Midway Airport to a private investment group.
Maine laid the groundwork for private investment in infrastructure in 2010 with the enactment of legislation allowing public-private partnerships, or 3P investments. Under the legislation, points out Maine Department of Transportation Commissioner Bernhardt, “Even if it’s 100 percent privately funded, it still has to go through the public process.”
Peter Vigue says Cianbro will not be an investor, nor will it build the highway. “We don’t build roads. We build structures,” he says. “We’d like to build the bridges.”
Vigue says he has a Cianbro team working on the highway proposal and that the company has already sunk “multiple seven figures” into the project, not including his own time. Though he is clearly the “king of the road,” Vigue says his company did not offer to pay for the feasibility study to avoid the appearance of conflict of interest.
“The state of Maine should have something independent to determine if this is right for the state,” Vigue says. “We didn’t want to taint the study by paying for it.”
The bipartisan vote in the Maine House was 110-28 to fund the feasibility study, but the vote in the Maine Senate was 19-15 along party lines, with the Republican majority in favor and the Democratic minority opposed. Independent Senator Dick Woodbury, of Yarmouth, who voted with the GOP members to back the study, says he did so simply because he wants to see the numbers.
“I’m wary of this being done by a private company,” says Woodbury. “If it’s worth doing, and the economic value is there, I don’t get why we wouldn’t make it a publicly owned toll highway so the state gets the surplus rather than some private owner.”
“As long as the state of Maine doesn’t mind going into debt for $2 billion,” replies Peter Vigue, “it would be great.”
Given that an East-West Highway has been talked about for decades and that environmental opposition will be stiff, what are the chances that it will actually get built this time? If it’s a go, Vigue and Maine Department of Transportation Commissioner Bernhardt both think an East-West Highway might take three years to design and permit (absent inevitable legal challenges) and another three years to build. In the likelihood of the highway being built, Commissioner Bernhardt, a veteran of twenty-eight years at the Maine Department of Transportation, notes that conditions are right. States don’t have money to build new roads. Private investors are interested. And rising gas prices make shorter routes, even toll roads, more attractive.
“The chances,” Bernhardt concludes, “are better than they have ever been.”