Highways for Habitats #26: East West Highway, Maine

Transportation planning is tough.  Roads have to serve a number of (sometimes competing) purposes.  Roads whose primary purpose is moving people and goods quickly through a community often have a detrimental effect on the communities they bisect (see: the history of freeways in Detroit).  Take state trunk lines for example, which you can recognize because they’re usually twice as wide to cross as the other roads in a neighborhood, and, of course, highways and interstates.  We’re currently running a series of posts featuring creative solutions from around the globe to make these roads – roads that must run through communities – also work to serve those communities.  Check out more about our inspiration here.

As our inspiration post notes, Michigan is currently in the midst of a major highway debate, and we are not alone.  In other towns and cities across the country and world, similar conversations are taking place about the future of our road systems and our neighborhoods.

The East West Highway conflict has been dividing Maine residents since 1937.  Many times the idea to build a highway crossing the state has been proposed and defeated, and it is once again surfacing.  Currently, a 220-mile toll highway connecting the east and west edges of the state is being planned by Cianbro, a Pittsfield-based construction company, and many are speaking out for and against it.  The highway would function as a thoroughfare, rumored to have only six exits along its entire length, providing travelers a faster and more direct route.

The justification for the highway has remained constant for more than 70 years: Maine does not have an east-west freeway, and needs one.  Currently people must travel on local highways, traveling less direct routes on slower moving roads.  Manufacturing businesses that move products long distances, for whom transportations costs are some of their greatest, say their companies would save money with the highway. Truck drivers sometimes feel public roads are made for cars, and aren’t as safe or wide enough for trucks.  Proponents also believe the highway would benefit Maine’s economy, especially the rural communities suffering from the loss of traditional manufacturing and resource-based jobs.

On the other side of the aisle stand some of those rural communities.  128 small businesses – so far – have formed the organization Maine Businesses Against the East West Highway to publicly oppose the project. Environmental groups and organizations are also expressing concerns.

Some discount the economic benefit argument, saying it would instead hurt local businesses by diverting traffic and business off the local roads, and even compromise the small-town community culture of the state. Public roads already traverse the state and the intensive construction of another route is believed to be unnecessary.  Opponents also believe the highway would have detrimental effects on wildlife habitats, destroying land while introducing unnecessary pollution – both during construction, and for the life of the road with vehicular emissions.  It has been said it would be, “the single largest destruction of fisheries and wildlife habitat in the history of this state by a private entity.” They add that destroying the state’s wildlife and habitats is an unsustainable way to boost revenue.

Opponents advocate instead for improving public routes, and transportation alternatives – like rail. A freight line already parallels the proposed route, and enhancing this method instead would reduce vehicle miles traveled and pollution.

Maine residents are now calling for an independent study of the impacts with full public disclosure and engagement.  From what LSM can tell, if there are people living in those rural communities whom indeed welcome the highway, they aren’t being very vocal, and some public support could have an impact on this conversation.

It is hard to dispute that low cost transportation is key to a strong economy. While the east west highway would save money for travelers and companies shipping their goods, it could take business from the more rural areas.  How does Maine find a way to balance these needs, while also considering the other factors?

We’ve seen many projects so far, like in Trenton, New Jersey in which trucks on highways traveling through towns became an issue that needed solving – usually with a new highway elsewhere.  Residents didn’t like the pollution and felt less safe crossing as trucks drove through.  But in Maine, residents are calling to keep trucks on those roads, seeing them as vital to their small businesses.  This calls to mind an important lesson in transportation planning: context sensitive solutions, created with the help of and consideration for all of the communities they affect, are the best solutions.

The important question now is: does the project truly meet the public’s needs?


Photo from Portland Press Herald.