Transportation and the economy have such a paradoxical relationship. There is not much need for roads, bridges, airports and shipping ports without a thriving economy, yet merely building such infrastructure and believing the old cliche that “they will come” to use it is a tough sell.
That’s why what three local economic development experts are advocating makes sense. Mike Aube, CEO of Eastern Maine Development Corporation; Bob Ziegelaar, president of Telford Group Inc. and former director of Bangor International Airport; and David Cole, former commissioner of the Maine Transportation Department and now a transportation consultant all believe highlighting — and explaining — existing transportation assets is an easy first step.
The three men, members of EMDC’s regional booster group Action Committee of 50, want business leaders and elected officials in central, eastern and northern Maine to better understand the transportation network that now exists. That network includes shipping ports in Eastport and Searsport, Bangor International Airport, railroads, including the recently state-purchased line in Northern Maine Railway, and interstate highways. Even the Penobscot River remains part of the transportation network, as seen in Cianbro’s use of the waterway to ship its modular facilities on barges.
The Action Committee of 50 is hosting the Maine Trade Logistics Forum on Nov. 10 at the Hilton Garden Inn in Bangor to discuss how the region might leverage its transportation assets to encourage more economic activity. Specifically, the players need to understand the triangle formed by BIA, Searsport and Eastport as a funnel through which goods can be exported.
Mr. Cole notes that this funnel lies below 15 million acres of forest. Products including paper, pulp and dimensional lumber will continue to rely on access to markets the shipping ports make possible. The upgraded port at Mack Point in Searsport and the potential to build a container port on nearby Sears Island are assets that should be foremost in the minds of business leaders and policymakers.
And it’s not just forest products that rely on export facilities. Other types of businesses can be established, relocate or expand here because of shipping capacity. Searsport and Eastport are one day closer to European ports, which equates to substantial savings. And more frequently, shippers are sending freight to North America via the Suez Canal, rather than through Panama. Those two state-owned ports are not competing, but rather complement each other in Maine’s ports and rail strategy.
Import capacity is often maligned in transportation discussions. Bringing more goods into Maine contributes to our trade deficit and weakens our manufacturing base, so how can it be good? In fact, though, imports create handling, distribution, assembly, warehousing and further shipping jobs. Containers arriving in Searsport can be double-stacked and sent via rail to Montreal, which then gives access to large Midwest markets.
It’s not all happy talk and pats on the back to persuade leaders that they’re doing a swell job. Instead, the forum will encourage those players to seek synergy — an over-used word, but appropriate here — in linking existing transportation conduits, identifying bottle necks and seeking cooperation among businesses.
Mr. Ziegelaar accurately notes that Maine can not afford to wait for the federal government to solve the large problems of transportation logistics. Instead, the state — particularly the eastern, central and northern regions — should work to integrate our transportation infrastructure into the larger systems that move goods across the continent and across the globe.
As the saying goes, a business has a better chance of succeeding if it is located on a busy highway, as opposed to being on a dead-end road. Maine can easily increase traffic on that highway.