Environmentalists Fighting a Proposed Highway that Would Bisect Maine
Critics Say Highway Could be a Trojan Horse for Moving Natural Gas or Tar Sands Oil
If you build it, they will come.
That seems to be the logic behind a new proposal to build a highway connecting eastern seaports in Maine with major highways in northwestern Canada. Although the idea is by no means new, the approach, as outlined in a feasibility study titled Northeast CanAm Connections: Integrating the Economy and Transportation, is unusual. Cianbro Corporation, its biggest proponent, thinks a corridor funded by private investors could stimulate the weak Maine economy and make the state’s coast a key import-export hub.
Photo courtesy WLBZ 2 News
It’s a pretty big leap for investors, and many Mainers don’t think the road will bring the expected gains — that the promised markets won’t come. Also, many Maine residents are concerned that such a road would disrupt the secluded, quiet lifestyle that brought them to northern Maine in the first place. Although shorter than current routes, the new highway would bisect Maine’s most rural areas, even crossing the famed Appalachian Trail. Wildlife groups complain that the highway would disrupt bird and mammal populations. Some environmentalists say the new infrastructure would open the way for Canadian fossil fuel companies to boost their exports or gas and tar sands oils.
Maine resident Lesley Fernow questions whether the benefits of the highway are worth compromising the state’s ecology and bucolic way of life. “Real wealth is nature’s wealth, as long as we don’t destroy it,” she said.
The proposed 220 mile, four-lane highway would connect Calais on the seaboard with Corburn Gore on the Canadian border (the exact route has not yet been disclosed). Supporters of the proposal claim that it will encourage economic growth in Maine seaports such as Eastport, Searsport, and Portland while saving Maine companies more than $500,000 in outbound shipping costs. Currently, many Canadian and Maine companies ship their products through Massachusetts or New York, adding an estimated 140 miles to a one-way trip. The shorter route would redirect current transport ways and make it quicker and easier to reach markets from Europe.
The road itself wouldn’t destroy that much, as it would be built on existing rights of way. But nearby waterways, soils, and animals would be affected, says Barbara Charry of the Maine Audubon Society. While roads take up less than 1 percent of America’s landbase, they have an impact on 15 to 20 percent of the land, she says. The road and traffic could create an effective barrier for animals that roam the backwoods of Maine, including the Maine bobcat and Canada lynx.
“The Maine northern forest is the last undeveloped part of the eastern United States,” Charry said. Major issues that she foresee include noise pollution that could disrupt breeding of woodland birds; sediments and runoffs that could pollute soil hundreds of feet from the road; and development in previously inaccessible areas. Animals that need space to roam in a daily search of food, water, and resting space would have less space, and migratory animals that travel regionally would also be bound to the north or south side of the roadway.
Wildlife crossings or fence networks designed to funnel roving wildlife to grassy bridges have proven largely successful and could alleviate some of the corridor’s impact on animals. But Charry doesn’t buy it. “They’re great for existing roads, but they’re not appropriate for a road put in the wrong place,” she said. In addition, they are expensive to construct, something private investors would want to avoid.
Aside from the new route, the proposal is revolutionary in that it will not rely on state or federal funds. Construction of the highway would be funded entirely by public-private partnerships, and investors would recoup their costs from tolls. Earlier proposals dating back to the 1960s had the highway cut through nearby New England states, costing state governments $12.5 billion over 25 years of building time. Developer Cianbro says that through private investments the corridor could be built in a matter of years for less than $2 billion. Only six exits would allow access to the roadway, which would cut a 1,000 foot-wide swath along existing rights of way. Surrounding land and areas of unconnected bits of road must be purchased from individual property owners.
Cathy Johnson of the Natural Resources Council of Maine believes the extra wiggle room around the road would be used as a utility and transmission corridor. “As a trucking highway, the cost-benefit just isn’t there,” she said. Previously, oil has been transported through Maine by rail. The corridor could be used to ship tar sands oil and natural gas. As she sees it, Canadian truckers and investors in the pipeline and tar sands projects are going to benefit the most. “I don’t think this is going to benefit Maine people at all,” she said.
Keith Van Scotter of Lincoln Paper and Tissue disagrees. He sees the proposed corridor as an “efficient way to get to the Midwest and Canada that we didn’t have before.” In addition to the shorter route, the highway would adhere to the Canadian weight limit of 137,500 pounds (as opposed to the American limit of 100,000 pounds) and a speed limit of 75 miles per hour. This could translate to 20 percent fewer trucks, which Van Scotter cites as a positive environmental impact. Shipping costs would go down, Maine would have better access to new markets, and jobs that already exist would be secured.
From an economic angle, the proposal seems great. But that’s the problem — so far, the feasibility study has only looked at the economic angle. Environmental impact studies don’t need to be conducted until investors begin to seek permits (which could happen in as little as two years).
Cianbro CEO Peter Vigue has spent the past few months campaigning at town meetings along the proposed corridor route, trying to gain support. Fernow attended a recent meeting and was shocked that Vigue refused to speak if there was an open mic. Questions had to be submitted in writing to a moderator, and duplicate (though rephrased) questions were ignored. The meeting was attended by town locals and opponents of the proposal, who wore hunter orange in a show of solidarity. Fernow called it a “three hour infomercial.”
Regardless of whether it aids Maine’s human inhabitants and the state’s economy, the highway is almost certain to have a major impact on the region’s wildlife.
In this case, if you build it, they will likely leave.