The idea of building an East-West highway across Maine has been proposed and dismissed many times over the past 60 years. NRCM opposed it each time.
A plan in 2013 was promoted by Peter Vigue, President and CEO of the Cianbro Corporation. NRCM opposed it because it would have harmed forests and fragmented the North Woods; damaged rivers and wetlands; destroyed wildlife habitat; and undermined Maine’s outdoor recreation economy.
In the past, the East-West highway concept was simply about a highway, but in the 2013 iteration, Cianbro proposed an East-West corridor that would include a four-lane divided highway and also energy, communications, and utility infrastructure.
As of 2020, there was not a significant push for the East-West highway. Attention instead turned to the controversial Central Maine Power (CMP) corridor. NRCM vigorously opposes the CMP energy corridor for many of the same reasons that we opposed the East-West highway. Read more about the CMP corridor and NRCM’s opposition.
NRCM has always been deeply concerned about the environmental impacts of a possible East-West corridor, and has never believed that such a project would benefit Maine. An East-West highway and energy corridor would be a raceway for Canadian truckers and a pathway for undisclosed energy supplies (e.g. oil, gas, tar sands), but other than creating jobs during the construction phase, Maine people would not benefit.
An East-West highway across the middle of the state would create two Maines, literally, and would cause impacts to communities and the environment that would fundamentally harm parts of Maine and our environment forever.
Advocates for an East-West highway paint a rosy picture, claiming the project would have few impacts and would be paid for entirely by private investors. We don’t believe these claims. On the contrary, NRCM is deeply concerned that today’s proponents of an East-West highway and energy corridor are keeping information about the project secret and failing to address major issues that should be a concern to all Maine people.
Although Mr. Vigue and his team at Cianbro have created a map of where the four-lane divided highway would go, they have refused to release the map to the public. Many Maine residents thus are rightfully worried about whether the proposed 220-mile divided highway might go right through their properties or towns, and whether eminent domain powers could be used to seize their land and homes for the project’s right-of-way.
Even without a detailed map, the general impacts of a highway extending from Calais to Coburn Gore are fairly obvious—and they would be substantial. Based on rough maps and descriptions released by advocates of the project, it is clear that the proposed corridor would cut through or pass adjacent to many conservation lands, including the Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge, Sunkhaze Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, Chain of Ponds Public Reserved Lands, and the Appalachian Trail, to name a few.
The highway and energy corridor would consume at least 13,500 acres (and possibly tens of thousands of acres) including vernal pools, significant wildlife habitat, deer wintering areas, and rare and endangered species’ habitat. The project would cross the Penobscot and Kennebec Rivers and countless other rivers, streams, and wetlands, jeopardizing native fish populations.
Cianbro revealed that the corridor would follow the Lower Enchanted Road in western Maine, directly adjacent to the Maine Huts and Trails’ Grand Falls Hut. This prized nature-based tourism destination, which was built and is marketed as one of Maine’s premier remote recreation experiences, would be put at risk with the sound of thousands of huge trucks traveling daily within earshot. Similarly, a highway corridor slicing a scar through the forestlands north of Flagstaff Lake would forever spoil the view from the Appalachian Trail atop the Bigelow range—which currently is a landscape view that rivals any east of the Mississippi.
Cianbro promoted the East-West highway as a way for Canadian truckers to save time and gas by speeding across Maine instead of traveling up and over Maine as they deliver freight between Quebec and New Brunswick. As many as 4,000 trucks per day—one every 10-20 seconds—might use the road by 2030, according to a preliminary study commissioned by Cianbro in 2008. Truck tolls would be $150 to $200. But what if truckers weren’t willing to pay such steep tolls?
And what if Quebec doesn’t agree to upgrade 61 miles of highway from Maine to Montreal, a stretch that goes through prime Canadian agricultural land? And what if the U.S. Government doesn’t spend millions of additional dollars upgrading border crossings to ensure that truckers actually saved time?
Mainers also need to be concerned about the impact on businesses located along Routes 1, 2, 9, and 201, if truckers bypassed our communities, restaurants, shops, and accommodations to travel instead on a highway designed to get them across Maine with as few stops as possible. Many businesses along existing routes could suffer and close if they lost a significant source of revenue.
Although Cianbro’s Peter Vigue said the project would cost $2 billion, this estimate is from a 2008 study and is in 2008 dollars. A more accurate figure based on highway construction costs in 2013 would have put the project closer to $10 billion. But what if the project were a financial failure? This is not an idle concern; several private highways in other states have gone bankrupt, leaving all maintenance and operation costs to taxpayers. Mainers cannot afford upkeep for existing roadways, let alone a new highway that could cost $20,000 per lane-mile annually to maintain.
In recognition that the highway itself may not be financially feasible standing alone, Cianbro also proposed that energy products and utilities travel through the corridor alongside the highway. The corridor could thus end up moving tar sands, oil, and/or gas, raising the risk of spills of these materials that would pose additional environmental problems.
Although Maine people have debated the idea of an East-West highway for decades, there are good reasons why such a highway has never been built. A 1999 study by the Department of Transportation and State Planning Office concluded that an East-West highway would not be cost effective, and it would be better to focus on upgrading existing highways instead, including Routes 2 and 9. In the past 20 years, Route 9 has been substantially upgraded, and there is clearly no need for a divided highway parallel to the upgraded Route 9. Other roads could be upgraded where needed. NRCM supports that approach as the best path forward for Maine.