NEW SWEDEN (AP) – A plan for a new and improved highway system between the northern end of Interstate 95 and the Canadian border is still years away, but already it is stirring debate on how it might change areas of the state’s northernmost county.

The Maine Department of Transportation has identified a proposed corridor for a series of road improvements to improve access within Aroostook County.

The plan would include a new highway from Smyrna Mills to Presque Isle, and upgrades to other highways, including Route 161 from Caribou to Fort Kent.

Many area residents, such as Norm Johnson of Presque Isle, say an improved transportation network is vital for the county’s economic future. Johnson raised his five children in Aroostook County, but he thinks it’s a shame four of them had to move away to find jobs.

“In the past 10 to 15 or so years, we’ve lost perhaps 20,000 people,” Johnson said, referring to the migration of workers and families. “Without expanding the business climate we’re going to continue to decline. The only way we can keep our young people here is to have something to offer.”

But some people in the small, close-knit town of New Sweden fear their community will pay the price if Route 161, the highway that cuts through the heart of their village center, is widened and attracts more traffic. At stake, they say, is the collection of historic villages that were settled in the 1870s by Swedish farmers and whose descendants live here today.

“This would leave a deep scar the full length of the Swedish Colony, 19 miles long,” said local historian Brenda Nasberg Jepson.

The Department of Transportation study is scheduled for completion in 2005.

Ray Faucher, the department’s project manager, said the rationale for a new and improved transportation system is to make the potato industry and other businesses more competitive.

The preferred route now being discussed includes include a new highway from Smyrna Mills to Presque Isle with a bypass around Presque Isle. The route then continues north along the current Route 1 to Caribou and Route 161 to Fort Kent, with a new piece of highway linking to Madawaska.

The road upgrades initially are likely to look like those on Route 9 between Bangor and Calais in Washington County, with repaving, widened shoulders and new passing lanes on hills. But as the specifics of the plan start to take shape, so too do the fears of those who the highway might negatively affect.

Faucher said the plan doesn’t have to wreak havoc on New Sweden or other small towns that make the county so attractive. Done properly, improved roads can enhance the appeal of New Sweden to tourists as well as residents, he said.

“It doesn’t make sense for us to come up here and try to promote economic development if we’re going to wipe out entire communities,” he said. “At this point we’re looking at a corridor, we’re not looking to destroy communities.”

AP-ES-12-28-03 1316EST

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