The East-West Highway Hits a Speed Bump

Sean Mahoney | @SeanCLF

Photo courtesy of Lhoon @ flickr.com

The concept of a private East-West highway that would cut across Maine is a proposal that CLF has had significant reservations about, for various reasons, since its inception. Recent events and discussion have only heightened those reservations.

The East-West Highway has been an on-again, off-again proposal since at least 1937. The concept last came under serious scrutiny in 1998, resulting in a report that the costs of building an East West highway outweighed the benefits, and that report’s focus was largely on the economic costs and benefits and not the environmental or community costs. The most recent proposal has generated a storm of criticism. A recent panel discussion of transportation experts that included Peter Mills, former State Senator and the current head of the Maine Turnpike Authority and former rail executive Matt Jacobson laid out the various economic and environmental problems with the proposal. See a video of that presentation here.

During the last legislative session, we at CLF believed that the decision by the Legislature to fund a study of a proposed private East West Highway to the tune of $300,000 was a waste of scarce state resources, both in the $300,000 that was allocated for the study and in the amount of time that the Department of Transportation staff would have to spend on designing the scope of that study. The proposal has proved so unpopular that the sponsor of the legislation, State Senator Doug Thomas, recently asked the Governor to suspend the study until more trust could be established with local people as noted in these articles here and here. Rather than slow down the study, as the Governor has proposed or propose new legislation to prevent a private party from exercising the power of eminent domain as Senator Thomas has done (a thinly veiled effort by Senator Thomas to change the subject to one he is more comfortable with although just as much of a red herring), Maine would be better off in evaluating how to increase the amount of traffic on its rail system.

As others have noted, Maine has an East West Highway: our railroads.  Rather than throw good money and time after bad, we should be spending time and money on how we can create better incentives and improve efficiencies in order to increase the flow of goods that leave and enter Maine via rail. The recent news that the Maine Northern Railway has tripled its volume of traffic is indicative of the economic value that rail can bring to Maine, especially for its natural resource industries.

In addition, the environmental benefits of not only using an existing system and avoiding all of the impacts that constructing a major new highway would have but also the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by transferring the shipping of freight from highway to rail are enormous. So perhaps the best result of this timeout would be for the money originally allocated to yet another study of an East-West highway to be reallocated to a study of maximizing the use and benefits of Maine’s existing infrastructure that can move goods across Maine.

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