N.H. bypassed in proposed private east-west highway

If it’s constructed, a proposed private highway running the width of northern Maine would dim the already slim likelihood that a federally funded east-west highway will ever be built connecting northern New Hampshire to the broader New England and Canadian markets.But whether that is a good or bad thing for the North Country depends who you ask.For many North Country landowners, that probably would come as something of a relief, said Bill Boynton, public information officer for the New Hampshire Department of Transportation.”I don’t think there’s any great hue and cry for a major east-west road,” said Boynton.The last time the subject of constructing a federal east-west highway through northern New England came up, “there wasn’t a lot of support for that in northern New Hampshire, nor did we pursue it to any great degree,” said Boynton. “While it had appeal for Maine, it didn’t seem to have appeal for the northern part of the state.”But given the North Country’s current economic climate, there may be more support for such a project now, said Jeff Hayes, interim executive director of the North Country Council.”When that discussion was happening before, we were in a much different place economically and as a region,” said Hayes.”We need those east-west connections; (they) are of the utmost importance to the economic development of the region,” he said. “Rail and roads — that is the basic infrastructure that we need to have a prosperous economy.”Since as early as the 1930s, there have been rumblings about building an east-west highway through the Northern Border region, through northern Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont to New York.Throughout the years, numerous studies have been conducted on the benefits of connecting those communities to major Canadian markets, from the Maritimes to Quebec and Ontario.It makes sense to tie those communities together, said Hayes, since the economy across the northern New England region “really runs east-west.””In many ways, the northern parts of all four states have more in common than we do with the southern part of all four states.”East-west ‘dilemma’The highway seemed closer to reality when, in 2005, a federal east-west highway running from Watertown, N.Y. to Calais, Maine, was designated a high-priority corridor on the National Highway System.A year later, in 2006, top officials from the four affected New England states and five Canadian provinces came together to study the region’s transportation deficiencies and the impact that transportation improvements would have on cross-border economic development.Their findings were released in a comprehensive report in 2008. It concluded that, even with the North American Free Trade Agreement and the explosion of global trade, the Northeast CanAm region had “grown slower than other regions, both domestically and internationally, since the turn of the 21st century.”While the region is well served by six major north-south interstate highways — I-81, I-87, I-89, I-91, I-93 and I-95 — there are no major east-west highways between the Trans-Canada Highway and I-90, which are separated by distances of up to 200 miles.”The east-west transportation dilemma is sort of throughout northern New England, but up here (in the North Country) it’s especially exaggerated,” said Hayes. “It’s especially difficult to go east-west — there’s only a few routes and all of them need an upgrade.”Among the study’s recommendations was to work to enhance “global competitiveness” by building a broader network of east-west rail and truck routes throughout the Northeastern United States and Atlantic and Continental Canada.Despite the effort, major cost constraints in the wake of the recession have cast a dark shadow on the viability of the project moving forward.”Right now, we’re dealing with a lot of extreme uncertainty in terms of federal funding and strained budgets at the state level,” said Mark Sanborn, federal liaison at the New Hampshire DOT. “Things are dramatically different when it comes to the public funding of transportation than it was in 2005.”With a 10-year plan that “doesn’t come near meeting the needs of the state,” the DOT’s priorities lie in completing ongoing projects, like the I-93 widening and repairing red-listed bridges, said Boynton.”We’re basically trying to maintain our existing system … We’re not talking new road construction to any great extent,” said Boynton.Not only would its cost be a major and prohibitive concern — the 2008 study pegged the multistate highway at $12.5 billion — but building a federal highway brings up a spate of related concerns, including right-of-way issues and potential environmental impacts, said Boynton.He drew a comparison to the controversial Northern Pass project, a proposed 180-mile hydropower transmission line that has drawn ire from landowners in the North Country on several fronts, including landowners’ rights and environmental impact.But the comparison is not exactly sound, said Hayes, since “the Northern Pass is an example of a project that doesn’t have a huge economic benefit for the North Country,” whereas improved east-west transportation would have major, direct economic benefits for the region.”There’s nothing that stimulates economic development more than road systems,” said Hayes, pointing to the federal Interstate Highway System.Construction of the national highway system, which began in the 1950s, was a massive infrastructure undertaking championed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower for national defense purposes.”Where they were seeing it as a way of moving tanks around the country in an easy way, the underground impact has been an economic impact,” he said. “You can’t have development unless you have access, and if you don’t have access, you’re not going to have development.”Support in MainePromoting rural economic development is one of the forces driving the private toll highway in Maine, said Peter Vigue, president of Cianbro Corp., the Pittsfield, Maine-based company that has proposed the project.He called the probability of a federal highway ever coming to pass “very remote.””This is an opportunity that has been discussed for way too many years. We believe it’s incumbent on us to deal with this issue, and move forward and look to the future,” he said.As it’s currently proposed, the highway would snake 220 miles from the eastern border town of Calais to Coburn Gore, where it would only be about 60 miles from Sherbrooke, Quebec, which has existing east-west connections to Montreal.”We think it will allow for the transformation of the economy in central and northern Maine … because currently it’s stagnated,” said Vigue.Many of the people in the rural areas “have migrated to the southern part of the state or outside the state of Maine, so our connectivity from a transportation standpoint is very poor, particularly going west,” he said. “We need to change that, and we believe that (this highway) will have a significant impact on attracting future investment to these areas, and also allow people to move back to where they want to live.”The road would cut a more direct route from New Brunswick to Quebec, meaning a significant chunk of its traffic would come from truckers driving between Atlantic Canada and Montreal and Toronto.”Some people would suggest this will benefit the Canadians, (and) that’s absolutely true, but it will also benefit the state of Maine and it will benefit New Hampshire, Vermont and New York, because they’ll have the ability to connect because their interstates go all the way to the border.”Private investors would bankroll the estimated $2 billion project, which would be maintained by tolls and could serve as a utilities and communications corridor through some of the state’s most economically depressed areas, said Vigue.He also envisions that the road would help to promote Maine tourism.The project has the support of Maine’s Department of Transportation as well as Gov. Paul LePage, who recently signed a bill allotting $300,000 in public funding for a feasibility study on the toll road.If it moves forward, the highway could be operational by as early as 2018, said Vigue.Just what impact the highway would have on Maine’s neighbors remains to be seen.Any nearby development that goes around the state could create an economic imbalance for Granite State industries, said Hayes.”Bypassing New Hampshire would mean that we would be bypassed for that economic impact, (though) I guess we would be bypassed for the environmental impact as well, on the other side of it,” said Hayes.”People in Coos County have clearly said in numerous surveys that jobs are the highest importance to them, and people are really struggling and the question is how do you provide economic opportunity? And I think transportation infrastructure and communications infrastructure are just the two prerequisites.”