Use federal funds to complete northern leg of I-95

Posted May 13, 2009, at 6:31 p.m.

Recent negative editorial comments regarding extending Interstate 95 compel me to ask two questions: Why are we wasting precious time on criticisms launched from one region to another in a state as beautiful as ours? Can we, instead, channel our energies into resolving economic damage inflicted on certain regions of our state by acute shortsightedness and sheer greediness?

It is a known and measurable fact that tremendous harm has been inflicted on the people north of Houlton since the late 1960s when we were denied a short, yet critical, 100-mile highway to its proper destination of the Fort Kent-Madawaska area.

As a leader in the Maine potato industry since the 1950s as a farmer, broker, shipper, and potato starch developer, I feel qualified to assert that farming was at the heart of our state’s prosperous economy for many years. In the early ’70s, Maine was known as the country’s Potato Empire, with Aroostook County recognized as the leading potato county of the nation. In those days, there were more than 200,000 acres of potato production in that 100-mile stretch north of Houlton, the best farming area of New England states, resulting in more than 300 carloads of potatoes shipped per day via railroad to varied markets from November to May each year. Much to our chagrin, this production capacity has been reduced to 50,000 acres.

We have been asking for more than 40 years: Where is the alternative, modern highway transportation system promised to us when railroad transportation was determined too slow and becoming outmoded? This highway was, and remains, critical for our fair competitive survival. Aroostook County witnessed the ultimate unfair political judgment and treatment that has deeply severed our lives and ties with the rest of Maine and the nation. This is an issue Maine residents do not seem to care or want to talk about. Denying our Northern Maine population a chance at competitive economic growth and sustenance is one of the state’s harshest and most shameful cruelties toward our good people.

A nonexistent highway north has had detrimental effects on all past and potential industries of our region — agriculture, lumber, paper, mills, trucking, tourism, higher education, and our safety. How many businesses and economic opportunities have been destroyed, or not even given the chance to emerge, due to lack of this life-giving link? What tremendous loss of revenues to our struggling families and to our state.

With more profound and earnest economic analyses, a fountain of opportunities lay ahead when considering the strength of our strategic location with New Brunswick and Quebec. With several millions of admirable and flourishing neighbors at our doorstep, our connection with the East-West Trans-Canada Highway, just across our borders, can bring about substantial tourism and commerce activity and real economic growth to every part of our state.

Where are the more than $8 million of highway plans generated from our federal funds to finish I-95 from Smyrna to the St. John Valley? Where are the efforts to implement measures to create employment and economic opportunities, such as advancing infrastructures in distressed areas? Where is our well-deserved, long over-due, state support? Politics and greed (from local to state levels) must not come into play. What needs to come into play is the responsibility to rectify past errors, and the integrity to care about residents from all regions.

People have similar basic needs, wants and aspirations, no matter what region we live in. Let’s take steps to build our destiny together, to build each other up, rather than weigh each other down. Completing the interstate with federal funds will undoubtedly introduce economic opportunities that will improve quality of life, build stronger family unity, and improve access to health care facilities and higher educational opportunities. Let us reclaim Maine’s status as the nation’s Crown State. Stop shaming our beautiful and bountiful region, and make Northern Maine the state’s crown jewel once again.

John F. Dionne of Grand Isle is a retired businessman who worked in the potato and construction industry. He was recently recognized by the Legislature for his lifetime service to Aroostook County.

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