Two stories recent stories in the BDN highlight both Maine’s shortcomings and an economic strategy for growth. One story reported that the feasibility of the long-touted east-west highway concept will be studied on the state’s dime — actually, on the state’s $300,000. The second story reported on the scope of Searsport’s Mack Point, where much of central and eastern Maine’s heating oil, diesel and gasoline are imported.
Looking at a map of the U.S., Maine appears to be an afterthought. Our location, so close to the highly populated Northeast yet also a dead-end on the interstate highway system, dooms Maine in many ways. Businesses needing to import material or products find it more costly and slower to get them delivered to Maine than to Boston, Philadelphia, Atlanta or Cleveland. Shipping completed products to larger markets also is costly and slow.
But another look at the map and the two news stories suggests a logical strategy.
Maine will never be a shipping hub in the way Newark, N.J., or Seattle are. But the state is poised to become a link in a developing commerce conduit. Maine, and especially the central, eastern and western parts of the state, lies along an “as-the-crow-flies” corridor between the maritime ports of Halifax, Nova Scotia, and St. John, New Brunswick, and the distribution hub of Montreal.
Montreal is on the St. Lawrence River, with access to the St. Lawrence Seaway, which in turn links to Detroit and Chicago, which give shippers access to the midwestern U.S.
Building a road across Maine linking highways in New Brunswick to highways in Quebec would substantially enhance shipping through the two-nation region, which has been dubbed Atlantica. If part of that road can be built with private money and it operates as a limited-access toll road it is more likely to come to fruition than if plans hinge on public funding. Public money should be used to improve existing east-west roads to create the highway.
The Port of Searsport also plays a key role in this network. Part of the state Department of Transportation’s three-port maritime shipping strategy, the Mack Point facility and an area designated on adjacent Sears Island for a container port, provide unparalleled benefits to shippers.
The Mack Point facility has a rail connection that offers “double-stack” capacity, meaning one shipping container can be stacked on top of another and travel all the way to Montreal without encountering a low bridge. The port has 40-foot-deep waters, rare on the coast, and is a full day closer by ship to Europe than New York.
A very legitimate question arises when considering this improved transportation network: what’s in it for Maine? Skeptics are right to wonder whether the state will merely see tail lights and diesel exhaust if it becomes part of a shipping conduit.
The answer lies in realms outside government. Businesses are already using the transportation corridor, or parts of it. Trucks from ports in the Canadian Maritime provinces either cross Maine on secondary roads or use the Trans-Canada Highway to bypass the state. Or goods stay on ships and make the journey around Maine and New Brunswick and enter the St. Lawrence Seaway at the mouth of the river.
Economic growth in Maine and elsewhere has taken root near transportation infrastructure. First it was shipping ports and then it was interstate highways. If a new trans-modal transportation system rises through eastern, central and western Maine, economic activity will follow. If policymakers resist this system, business activity will create its own detour around Maine.