The assertion that an east-west highway will boost the economy in rural parts of Maine has already been proven to be bogus. In October 1999, the Maine Department of Transportation and state planning office released the Phase IV Technical Report, the last of the studies evaluating a proposed east-west highway across Maine, which exposed the fallacy.
How about taking the Phase IV report off the shelf, along with the others in that series that looked at, not just the environmental effects of several different possible routes across the state including the one to Coburn Gore, but the whole concept. Those earlier studies have already shown that an east-west highway is not justified.
The new study the Legislature approved this session isn’t going to look at the environmental effects, the economic effects, or the need of such a highway. It is only to study the “feasibility” of it, and for good reason. The environmental effects of an east-west highway have already been proven to be greatest for the Coburn Gore route. The need has already been shown to be so far out into the distant future as to be speculative. The economic benefits have already been shown to be paltry, if nonexistent, except, obviously, for the developers and construction companies so bent on building it.
The Phase IV Technical Report was the result of a study that specifically examined two comparable interstate highways, I-89 and I-91 in Vermont and New Hampshire. Based on the transportation and economic trends before and after the construction of those two interstate highways, the authors concluded that no significant employment or population growth would flow into rural counties located along an east-west highway across Maine.
To the extent that economic effects from a highway would occur, the authors concluded they most likely would occur within commuting distance of Bangor and other larger population centers along the corridor, which are already located near Interstate 95. The not-so-positive findings about the two interstates are numerous.
The most common type of development along these corridors is highway-related services such as fast-food establishments and gas stations. Neither highway dramatically altered the underlying economic structure of the corridor communities. Both I-89 and I-91 generated negative bypass effects on some communities.
In the areas of White River Junction, Vermont and Lebanon, New Hampshire, communities that were bypassed, particularly along Route 5 between White River Junction and Newport, lost roadside business development as a result of the construction of I-91. Windsor County, Vermont, where I-89 and I-91 intersect, experienced the slowest rate of job growth of all counties in Vermont from 1969 to 1996.
St. Johnsbury, Vermont, located at the intersections of I-91, I-93 and U.S. Route 2, is served by five interstate exits, but was found to have generally underperformed the Vermont economy over the past 20 years. Although I-91 did provide rural populations to the north of St. Johnsbury with better access to the town, the convenience of the interstate also encouraged residents to drive to Littleton or Lebanon, New Hampshire to shop. As a result, St. Johnsbury experienced little new retail development in recent years.
Proponents of an east-west highway will be hard-pressed to refute the actual historical data compiled about the harmful effects to rural communities of I-89 and I-91, both of which had been in operation roughly 30 years at the time of the study. Those highways serve regions such as central and northern Maine, providing comparable highway connections to Montreal. None of the findings should be a surprise to anyone who has followed the debate over the east-west highway. A financier would have to be a fool to invest in such an outdated concept rescued from the trash bin of history.
Pamela Prodan is an attorney practicing in Franklin County and one of the founders of Citizens for Sensible Transportation.