pnms-newman-123108 The legend of 'Interstate 92'

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In Maine we’ve grown accustomed to our state being regarded as both vacationers’ paradise and charming anachronism. Visitors from larger metropolitan areas come here to “rusticate” and have done so for generations. Comics enjoy mimicking the distinctive Downeast accent and making lobster jokes.
For our part, we like to point out that Maine is the way life should be, and of course there’s a lot to recommend it. We covet the natural beauty, unhurried lifestyle, safe surroundings and small-town sense of place. We’re accustomed to seeing our governor, senators, indeed, all elected officials out in public, shopping, at the movies and so on. Pretense doesn’t play well here.
Yet for all of Maine’s virtues, there is nothing charming about our state’s continued disconnection from the pulse of mainstream economic activity. While great strides have been made in recent years to build the information infrastructure that supports many a back-office operation and enables certain industries to compete from our relatively remote location, comparatively little has been done physically to link Maine to regions of greater economic activity.
For dedicated workers with lower-than-average household incomes who toil in a lagging economy, there’s nothing quaint about saying you can’t get there from here. Nor do potential employers, researchers and investors find it amusing. Maine’s chronic economic difficulties – indeed much of northern New England’s plight – can be traced to the fact that we are largely isolated from larger markets and urban centers into which we might sell our goods and services.
It needn’t have been this way.
Back in 1944, the National Interregional Highway Commission contemplated a major east-west highway that would have connected Calais on the east (just across the Canadian border from St. Stephen, New Brunswick) with Burlington, Vt., on the west. The intention was to build a road to span northern New England’s mountains and valleys, providing access to Atlantic Canada on the east and linking not only Canadians but residents of rural northern New England to larger centers, like Quebec and Montreal, on the west.
Traffic counts failed to demonstrate the need for such a thoroughfare, however, and subsequent efforts over the intervening decades, including studies by the Federal Highway Administration and some states, similarly discouraged planners from taking next steps towards construction of what some advocates and engineers had penciled in as “Interstate 92.”
Many residents of the region most directly affected by the lack of connectivity – which is to say northern Maine, the so-called Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, and portions of upstate New York – have argued for years that relying on traffic count and a current-status industrial make-up would never support the models traditionally relied upon by highway planners. The point, advocates say, is that without the connectivity provided by the proposed highway, the traffic, industrial base and consequent prosperity will never materialize.
Skeptics decry a “field of dreams” approach and, given the cost of highway construction, it’s appropriate to be conservative. But no one is advocating a road to nowhere. Indeed, the situation on the ground in the regions to be connected by the proposed east-west highway has changed dramatically since early and even more recent studies curtailed discussion.
To the east of central and northern Maine lies the province of New Brunswick, which is positioning itself as a global energy hub, attracting billions of dollars in investment that will find its way into an established and growing energy infrastructure. Thousands of jobs are being created, materials will be needed and labor shortages are anticipated.
To the east of New Brunswick lies the port of Halifax, Nova Scotia, one of the most capable deep water ports in eastern North America.
To the north and west, Montreal is a major, multi-modal transport hub for all of North America, with high-quality road, rail, air and port infrastructure; and Quebec’s abundant hydroelectric resources and announced intention to produce 4,000 megawatts of wind energy (up from just 312 megawatts today) by 2015 confirm that the region’s other provincial neighbor will be busy building capacity, as well.
Northern New England now finds itself in the center of a region of enormous economic potential, and, for once, our location no longer need be an impediment to progress. Safe and efficient transportation connections are not an economic silver bullet, but without the “interstate,” much of the region’s vast potential will continue to go untapped.
No one, least of all those of us who live in and love Maine, wants to destroy the ambiance and lifestyle that support our tourist industry and our treasured way of life. In a global economy, however, clicks and mortar can take a remote geographic location and the people living there only so far. Real prosperity depends not only upon virtual connectivity, but a real connection.
Up here, we have known for some time that infrastructure matters. Perhaps now, finally, “Interstate 92” is a project whose time has come.
Perry B. Newman lives in South Portland and is founder of Atlantica Group, a division of Pierce Atwood Consulting in Portland, with clients in North America, Europe and Israel. His column is published monthly.