East-west highway is road to progress

By Richard Bronson, Special to the BDN
Posted March 27, 2012, at 5:30 p.m.

Who among us here in Maine has yet to observe the fact that many Mainers are underemployed? Many of Maine’s social problems are directly linked to our economic ills. Our unemployment figures are bad, but they do not fully define the issue; many people gave up being one of the “unemployed/underemployed” years ago and have just fallen from view.

So how to improve this situation? One of the few real strategies for Maine is an east-west highway. As the world economy developed, transportation was the big push of post-war Europe and North America, and now the hot-button push is information and electronic connectivity.

However, Maine never finished the job of the 1950s and 1960s — transportation connectivity. In the end, much of the value of information connectivity still depends for resulting economic flow on transportation connectivity. We can’t send most of our final goods and products via electrons.

Almost all U.S. states have modern highway systems with one or more sets of crossing interstate-type highways; that is, highways in multiple directions. Only four states don’t enjoy that sort of arrangement. One of those states is a series of islands — Hawaii; one has huge distances between population centers — Alaska. One is Maine, while states like Vermont (half our population and one-sixth our land area) have multiple interstates. Maine continues with essentially one interstate highway in a mono direction; no cross connections.

There are now 21 studies on the shelves of Maine state government since 1947 about an east-west highway. They all say it would be good if completed but ask the question “how?”

To build a privately funded or even mostly privately funded highway will require a different type of study than has yet been conducted. One requirement of the needed study is that it be done by an independent group, independent of the potential eventual private investors.

For the state to invest $350,000 in an attempt to avoid $1 to $2 billion in publicly funded construction costs and bring that level of infrastructure investment is one of the best deals we have ever had before us. Given that Maine government has proved unable or unwilling to put us on the modern transportation system, why is it not totally appropriate for government to fund this relatively small investment in hopes of bringing 6,000 times that much money in new investment?

This is not about short-term construction jobs. It is about long-term jobs in many different Maine businesses and industries that become better connected to North America. Those long-term jobs are in all 16 of Maine’s counties.

The shortest highway route from most of Maine to Detroit or Minneapolis and many other U.S. cities does not begin by traveling south to go west; it begins by traveling west. Once out of Maine, the modern highways for that trip exist.

But what about the huge areas of land to be built on? If the completed highway rests on a 300-foot-wide corridor (some U.S. four-lane highways are built into corridors no more than 150 feet wide) across 240 miles of Maine, the land used would be 0.04418 percent of Maine’s total land area; and much of that is already roads.

Oh, the family farm — no person I know is anti-family farm. But the truly small and subsistence farms went away as a prevailing economic system when the era of economic specialization began 200 years ago.

Maine’s current terrible economy should no longer suffer being disconnected from the world around us. Trade is what has built our modern economic systems and income. Anyone want to go back to a $1 per hour minimum wage? Would not the remaining family farms be better served with a better means to ship their products to more markets?

Oh, the pollution? No, any possible water pollution will be looked after by the same regulators we all now know. Water protection is stronger now than any previous time in U.S. history. Regional air pollution will be reduced as east-west traveling cars and trucks stop the 150-mile trip around Maine or wasted trips south to go west. Much less fuel will be burned, thus less air pollution.

If Maine continues to distrust the future, we will not enter that future in any good condition. Some people seem to think life was better before modern advancements, but I don’t want to go back. We have studied for 60 years. How many more of your neighbors or families need to be mired in the current insufficiently productive Maine economy?

Those Mainers who give up often suffer poorer health and some will resort to drugs and other illegal activities. Read the pages of this newspaper. Haven’t we had enough lack of progress?

Rick Bronson lives in Bangor.

http://bangordailynews.com/2012/03/27/opinion/contributors/east-west-highway-is-road-to-progress/ printed on August 2, 2014