In a move that can only be seen as ideologically, not logically driven, the state Department of Transportation has pulled the plug on planning efforts for midcoast’s U.S. Route 1 corridor. Explaining the move, DOT Commissioner David Bernhardt cited his and Gov. Paul LePage’s goals of trimming state spending. But the planning initiative, which to date has used more than $2 million in funding, easily could have been quietly parked for a couple of years while the volunteer steering committee continued its work.
Among the boisterous anti-government crowd, planning is suspect, reminiscent, they believe, of the central planning efforts of the Soviet Union. Except in this case, the planning was being done locally. Killing this effort is a slap in the face to the governing bodies of the 21 communities between Brunswick and Prospect that agreed to join Gateway 1.
Anyone living on or near the midcoast Route 1 corridor knows all too well the problems traffic and retail and housing development have created. The highway itself varies in character and width; there are no shoulders in Lincolnville in Waldo County, double lanes through Waldoboro, and the road becomes Main Street in Searsport and Rockland while skirting downtowns in Belfast and Damariscotta.
Planning for the corridor has implications for the towns’ economic future. Perennial summer traffic jams in Wiscasset and Camden threaten to kill the golden goose that is the tourist trade in the communities along the roadway. Big box retail development blooming in a city like Rockland can drain downtowns of their economic vitality 20 miles on either side.
A classic example of the need for regional planning in the corridor is what happened several years ago in Belfast. Walmart sought a rezoning of a parcel on Route 3 to accommodate a store, but city residents voted down the proposal. Searsport selectmen, in response, publicly courted the retail giant to use a parcel of land on Route 1 just east of Belfast. Had Walmart agreed, Belfast would have seen the same traffic problems had voters approved the store there.
One hopes the paranoid musings of some anti-government people in the area, who saw similarities between Gateway 1 and a United Nations planning initiative, did not spur the governor and DOT commissioner to kill the midcoast effort.
Ironically, it was DOT’s work widening and straightening Route 1 in Warren nearly 10 years ago — a project that included cutting big trees that were favorites among locals — that inspired Gateway 1. Critics at the time painted DOT as a heavy-handed outsider who changed the community’s character. Gateway 1 was launched as a way to empower locals. Cutting the program is the opposite of respecting the home rule principle.
Locals interested in keeping the planning effort alive should create a regional entity, such as the county councils of governments, so it can be eligible to land federal transportation planning grants. Abandoning the work achieved thus far should not be an option.