JAY — “I can tell you in all honesty that I've never been as excited about a role as I am about this one,” said Darryl Brown, Program Manager for the East-West Highway project, at the Jay-Livermore-Livermore Falls Chamber of Commerce meeting last Friday.
Brown is working with Cianbro CEO Peter Vigue, who has spearheaded the project. Brown explained that the concept of an East-West Highway has been discussed periodically by state legislators since the 1980s. Studies and evaluations were done, but nothing happened.
“Why was it never done? There's no money,” said Brown. “Peter Vigue has come up with a new solution: Let's do it privately.
“What we're talking about here is connectivity…It provides great opportunities for Maine in terms of economic development.”
He explained that his job was to define the route and promote the program. Brown became involved, he said, due to his concern about the long-term health of Maine's economy.
He noted that Maine's median age is the oldest in the nation. In 2010, Maine's gross domestic product growth was only 0.4 percent, ranking 46th in the U.S. That same year, the total non-farm employment growth was 0.1 percent, ranking 43rd in the nation. Brown cited Maine's poverty level as 36th worst in the U.S.
“Are we satisfied with this? How can we be?” he asked.
Maine, he said, is united by nature with Canada, divided only by the U.S. border. The largest state economic investors in Maine — Emera, TD Bank, McCain, Irving Forest Products, and Oxford Frozen Foods — also have Canadian connections. One third of Maine's foreign-bound goods are exported to Canada. A total of 37,000 Maine jobs depend on Canadian-U.S. Trade.
Brown showed a map displaying the major transportation routes involving Maine. These include the Ontario-Quebec continental gateway, and the Atlantic gateway. Maine provides the linkage between these two routes.
The proposed East-West Highway would be a private toll road extending from Calais to Coburn Gore. It will be built with private financing and be maintained by a private entity. It would be patrolled by Maine law enforcement agencies.
Brown noted that despite all of the north-south connections in northern New England, there is no major east-west highway.
“It's connectivity to the markets, not only U.S. markets, but global markets,” he said. “The upper Midwest area is where the majority of industries are.”
He noted that from Coburn Gore, it is a relatively direct east-west line to Sherbrooke, where a major highway leads to Montreal and then Toronto, Detroit, and Midwest markets.
Additionally, said Brown, the East-West Highway would have major implications for ocean shipping in Eastport. Goods from foreign markets will be brought through an improved Panama Canal and up the East Coast to Eastport, or from the Suez Canal west to Maine. Eastport has the deepest ocean water of any sea port in the lower 48 states.
“Maine could become a pretty important hub for these shipping routes,” said Brown. “Here is a real opportunity for Maine to become a leader in dealing with ships bound for the United States and Canada.”
Rail also plays an important part in the transportation scheme, he noted.
Environmental challenges abound, and Brown said he has been working with the Nature Conservancy to find a route that would minimize environmental impact.
“This will be the largest construction project ever undertaken in the state of Maine,” he said. “It will require multiple permits.”
The road will be 220 miles long, crossing the Penobscot and Kennebec rivers along the way. There will also be numerous stream and wetland crossings. The project will be constructed so that it is ISO 14001 compliant, which means it will be subjected to the highest possible level of scrutiny by a third party.
“We have committed to avoiding conservation areas,” said Brown, who added that the project needs to be made vehicle-friendly as well.
The road corridor will use a total of 13,333 acres. It has six proposed interchanges with other roads and towns at this time, although that number could change. Tolls will be charged along the road in an attempt to recoup the $2.1 billion project cost.
Brown stated that the project vision is as follows:
-Providing economic opportunity and vitality to Maine, the Canadian Maritimes, and Quebec;
-Developing a long-term transportation, utility, and communications corridor;
-Improving connections to U.S. and Canadian heartland and Atlantic ports;
-Developing demonstration pre-clearance border crossings;
-Attracting additional investments to Maine's rural communities;
-Reducing travel time and the carbon footprint;
-Revitalizing Maine's ports and rail systems;
-Creating long-term jobs and expanding the tax base;
-Improving access for tourists to Maine.
“Maine can become the bread basket of the Northeast,” said Brown.
The road corridor will be 500 feet wide. Eminent domain will not be used for land acquisition. There will be wildlife crossings built above the highway to allow animals to cross safely and reduce the number of collisions with vehicles.
Canadian weight limits and tandem trailers will be used. Brown noted that the project will be constructed by Maine people and companies.
As far as the amount of time needed to construct it, he said that “in a perfect world, it will take us three years from now to get the permits and another three years to build the highway.”
Brown was also asked what percentage of the road will use existing corridors.
“We're still defining that, refining that,” he said.
It will not pass along existing state and federal highways, but as much paper company land and woods roads as possible will be used.
“What's a way to get this from being something for the Canadians to bypass the rest of Maine?” attorney Ron Aseltine asked.
Brown responded that the highway will be tremendous in its positive impact on tourism and will allow for greater economic opportunities in Maine as a whole.
“This is a partnership of everyone in Maine. It's not just Cianbro,” he said.