CONTRIBUTORS

Time to support the Maine road

Posted March 20, 2012, at 5:23 p.m.

Maine is at an economic and environmental crossroads. One path leads to stagnation and sprawl, as the state struggles in isolation, without direction, to find its niche in a rapidly changing global economy. Along the other path, we can see vitality and growth, with responsible, controlled development, with Maine as a gateway to global markets along an East-West Highway connecting Atlantic ports in Maine and Canada with their industrial heartlands.

For the Legislature and the people of this state, it is a time to choose.

As members of regional organizations that have made economic-development and quality-of-life issues our priority, the choice and the path for the future are clear. The proposal for a privately financed east-west highway will make Maine an active player in the global economy, controlling its own destiny, moving forward with a project that is realistic and finally, within our grasp.

To open the state to an infusion of significant private funds to build this highway, the Legislature has been asked to approve an appropriation for an investment-grade feasibility study. This approach is consistent with Maine’s history of successful public-private cooperation to create jobs and economic opportunity.

In the 1980s, the state made a novel choice to use public funds to build a dry dock in Portland.

The goal was to insure that Bath Iron Works would remain a vital employer and manufacturer of Maine-built ships. Maine had always been a leader in boatbuilding and BIW was at the pinnacle in the industry.

Like today, the global marketplace was changing. Maine had the choice of watching a mature industry languish, or of stepping up with essential public-private cooperation and investment. It chose to act, and the leadership and courage the state displayed a quarter century ago ensured that BIW would retain a premiere position in its industry, exporting Maine-built ships into a new millennium and providing jobs as Maine’s single largest private sector employer.

Today, Maine is asking for similar leadership from its lawmakers. Investors need to know if an east-west highway is financially feasible. That question must be answered by an independent investment-grade study. This effort, like the public investment made so many years ago in Portland, is in the interest of the people of Maine and should be funded.

For a public investment of approximately $350,000, the state has the potential to leverage more than $2 billion in private investment that will put hundreds of Maine workers on the payroll of a major construction project.

If the dry-dock approach in the 1980s was novel, the east-west highway concept is indeed unique and visionary. Private investors, not Maine taxpayers, will build and maintain the highway with revenue generated by the users of the road. The highway is designed to be environmentally sound, using existing rights-of-way to construct a controlled-access roadway that will stimulate disciplined, focused investment in new businesses connected to the transportation and energy components of the corridor.

Connecting central and northern Maine to the world around us has long been in our best interests. Now, we have been presented with the extraordinary opportunity to have a state-of-the-art road system in our region built at private expense. It is an opportunity we must not miss.

Meanwhile, existing Maine industry in manufacturing, forestry, marine and agricultural products will be given access to major markets in the Midwest and the heartland of the United States and Canada. From the north and the south, Maine businesses will have a vibrant new crossroads for export of their products to the east and west.

The economic irony today is that while Maine is positioned beautifully as an active participant in the global network of trade and logistics — we sit right along the direct path for commerce between Atlantic U.S. and Canadian ports, and the heartlands of the world’s two great trading partners — that commerce goes around us, isolating the state from global economic energy and our potential to capitalize on its geographic advantages.

Like the highway that offers this state so much promise and hope, Maine is at a crossroads.

It must decide whether to move in the direction of economic progress and engagement in the global economy, or be content with stagnation and sprawl. Taking a new direction, and committing to a public-private partnership require courage and vision. We believe Maine people and their lawmakers still have both.

It is time to connect Maine to the world, and give it control over its own destiny. We have a choice of paths, and East-West Highway is the best road to travel. It leads to the future.

Andy Hamilton and Elizabeth Sutherland are co-chairs of Mobilize Eastern Maine. Michael Aube of Eastern Maine Development Corporation, Mike McInnis of the Action Committee of 50 and Miles Theeman of Access Atlantica also are signatories on this Op-Ed.

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