June 20, 2018
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East-west highway going in the wrong direction

By Roger Merchant, Special to the BDN

I’ve listened to lots of talk to gather facts about the costs and benefits of the proposed east-west highway. Lots of new information came out this past weekend at the open forum in Dexter, which stood in stark contrast to the prior orchestrated event in Dover-Foxcroft, which dismissed the possibility of open public engagement.

Public concerns about the social, economic and environmental costs and benefits continue to weigh on the minds of many community members: local farmers, Christmas tree growers, business owners, wildlife managers and public officials. These people have concerns about rural development in a rural region that knows economic distress, but they also know the priceless, enduring values of community, local culture and environment, small businesses, self-sufficiency and neighborly helpfulness.

I’m not sure Peter Vigue of Cianbro Corp. grasps the depth and breadth of local values, concerns and rural intelligence when he admonishes us, as he did at the Dover-Foxcroft forum, to accept his rural poverty declaration about us, look at his proposal for an east-west highway and simply “do the math.”

So, will local questions and concerns be heard in the formulation and conduct of the $300,000 state feasibility study? Or will that be shaped by the Maine Department of Transportation, the executive branch and Vigue? Local participation in this largely private process does not seem likely from the responses offered at the more recent Dexter forum. I argue that Maine commitment implies public engagement.

That the feasibility process is being openly questioned is no accident, and it’s not coming from some enviro-liberal fringe. It’s coming from rural people from all walks of life, often holding divergent points of view. They see the ever-changing nature of what is being proposed, and they see the proposition process is not as transparent as the proponents would like us to believe it is.

What started as a highway idea to facilitate the shipment of Canadian commerce between the Maritimes and Montreal has opened up into something potentially bigger than one more highway. Other viable, highly profitable prospects have subsequently come into public view: oil pipeline, telecom, electrical power and water continue to surface as corridor economic development possibilities.

These are money makers, too, all having potential economic realities. I had not considered the possibility that the highway could just as easily facilitate the transport of Quebec-Maritimes fracked oil. It could easily support the export of our marginally protected pristine lake waters, out of state and out of country, to water-starved areas of the world.

A highway is one thing. I get that. For the past 20 years in my rural development work, it was known that highway infrastructure for commerce and tourism, north-south out of Piscataquis County, needed improvements to enhance local economic development. But east-west? That’s going in the wrong direction. That’s about Canada, not rural Maine’s markets to the south.

It was also known that improved east-west rail infrastructure would have a positive impact on rural development. Couple the fact that trains get 470 miles per gallon per ton of freight, compared with 155 miles per gallon per ton for trucks. Trains outcompete trucks on fuel efficiency.

So, why would anyone want to kill rail efficiencies and jobs with an east-west highway? Given the huge economic and political power that oil, electric, telecom and water future realities hold for those with the bucks to get those assets flowing, these options appear to be viable economic activities that could enrich the profitability of the corridor, while bisecting our towns, our back 40 acres, maybe our backyards.

And it will most certainly fracture our highly cherished rural quality of life with little evidence of demonstrated local economic benefit.

How will Vigue and the DOT account for this in the feasibility study? Or maybe we got the math wrong again, that effect on rural quality of life is simply not up for consideration in the pending economic feasibility agenda.

Given all the unanswered questions and growing public concerns, one thing seems pretty apparent: The public continues to ask Vigue and the state for a more open, ongoing dialogue about what is being presented in the east-west corridor proposal, which some would argue is a highway going in the wrong direction.

Roger Merchant is a retired rural development specialist from Glenburn.

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