Residents of Aroostook County were understandably miffed to see their part of the state described as “nowhere” in a headline in Augusta’s Kennebec Journal. The story referred to Sen. Troy Jackson’s bill, LD 736, which requests that funding from the state’s share of the federal stimulus package be devoted to extending I-95 from Houlton to the northern part of the county.
Aroostook County’s economic well-being is important, and offensive headlines only muddy the waters, but this bill does not deserve to pass. Any funds available for transportation upgrades ought to be spent where the work is needed, and any efforts to improve the county’s economy ought to be targeted where it will be most effective. An extension of I-95 accomplishes neither.
County boosters, including Sen. Jackson, repeatedly cite a promise they claim was made in 1956 when the Interstate Highway System was created. The promise, they say, was to continue the divided highway north of Houlton, presumably to Fort Fairfield or even Fort Kent. Such promises are not redeemable in a democracy. Each time a new governor and Legislature are elected, new priorities are set. And with a backlog of some $1 billion in transportation projects on the books, the state already has its list.
As for gridlock in the county, the problem of getting stuck behind a truck on Route 11 or Route 1 can be remedied more cheaply by building passing lanes or bypasses where needed.
Supporters of extending the interstate argue that building transportation infrastructure can lead to economic activity. Though I-95 connects Bangor to Houlton, it has not created prosperity along that corridor. And while I-95 north of Old Town is important, it rarely sees the volume of traffic that warranted, for example, the widening of the Maine Turnpike or the recent improvements to I-295.
Sen. Jackson notes that Aroostook County is home to about 75,000 people. What he doesn’t say is that its population peaked in 1960 and has steadily declined since and is now at the same level as it was in 1910.
Though the Legislature’s Transportation Committee unanimously supported the bill, the vote likely was a gesture, not an endorsement. The bill is worth discussing because it highlights an ongoing problem in many of Maine’s economically distressed regions: facing reality. A clear-eyed self-assessment of a region’s assets and shortcomings, and knowing which assets can be polished and which shortcomings can be diminished — and which cannot — is essential to crafting an effective economic development strategy.
Road bottlenecks are not what ails Aroostook County, which is highlighted by the fact that Sen. Jackson says it doesn’t matter what route the new interstate would follow. Instead of building new divided highways, state money could better be used to develop the region’s strengths, which include agriculture and forest products. Business incubator centers in a few key communities and better marketing the region to tourists could also help.
Aroostook County is not “nowhere.” And someday, if it grows, an extension of I-95 may be needed. But not yet.