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Association News: Challenges and opportunities

An old dream gets a new face
Spinning the East-West Highway concept with a private twist

By Douglas Rooks

The idea of an east-west highway bisecting Maine has been around for a long time, and possible routes have been discussed at least since the 1970s. The most recent federal study, however, said that the highway’s economic benefits might not be sufficient to attract the necessary public funding – an estimated $1 billion.

Now, the CEO of Cianbro Corporation, Peter Vigue, has come up with an entirely different focus – a privately built toll road away from population centers, but following existing logging road corridors to minimize environmental impacts.

Vigue has been speaking across Maine and in Canada’s adjacent provinces about the private highway concept. Although he doesn’t yet have investors, he does have a date for completing the road: November 2014.

If that sounds ambitious, Vigue does have an ambitious track record. Cianbro is Maine’s largest construction company, with more than 2,000 employees and operations in 15 states. The company has taken on a variety of troubled, or even failed projects over the past decade and brought them to completion. Those projects include the highly visible oil drilling platforms finished in Portland Harbor, tanker hulls from the Gulf Coast and a bridge project in Connecticut. Talking about the project, Vigue makes it clear that he welcomes a challenge, and he considers the eastwest highway a logical step in bringing economic development to Maine.

“For too long we’ve been seeing ourselves at the end of the road,” he said. “We need to broaden our perspective, to really embrace the global economy. If we can do that, we can succeed.”

The trans-Maine highway responds to an obvious transportation bottleneck, he said. All the major interstate highways in Northern New England run north and south, including I-95, which connects Boston to Canada but leaves out the entire Midwest of both countries – Montreal and Toronto as well as Detroit and Chicago.

Because most Canadian trucks now detour all the way around Maine, north of the Saint John River, trips to the heartland from the Maritimes take four to five hours more than they should, he said. The economic analysis, he said, is simple. “It costs $100 an hour to operate a big rig, maybe more,” Vigue said. “A toll road that cuts that cost significantly can pay for itself.”

Vigue doesn’t dismiss the original idea of a road financed through state and federal funding, but he says the current routing is fraught with problems. “I just don’t think you can acquire the necessary right of way through these communities at an acceptable cost,” he said. He points to Route 2 west of Bangor, in particular. “Just look at how long it’s taken to site a bridge in Norridgewock, and it’s still not done.”

His preferred route is not untouched wilderness – it follows a route along existing logging roads through most of its 220-mile length – so it would be easier to permit and build within a $1 billion budget. He sees that as a realistic budget for his dream.

Since the route would run from the New Brunswick border across to Quebec at Coburn Gore, it wouldn’t require involvement from neighboring states. “I don’t think you could get a new road permitted in Vermont,” Vigue said. And around population centers in Maine, the same problems recur. “The Route 1 corridor along the midcoast is another example,” he said. “People don’t like all that truck traffic coming through their town. It’s better if we can move it elsewhere.”

The plan has caught the attention of transportation observers, from Maine and elsewhere. Dale Hanington, who heads the Maine Motor Transport Association, said “conceptually, it’s a great idea.” While the primary early users would undoubtedly be Canadian freight companies – “that’s really the target audience” – he said Maine truckers would make use of the road, and it could provide an opportunity for companies to expand and take advantage of the new linkages. The fact that trucks of 100,000 pounds or more, not currently permitted on I-95 north of Augusta, could freely operate on the new road is another significant attraction, he said.

Peter Samuel, who edits Toll Road News, an on-line publication observing and advocating for private road ownership, said Vigue’s approach is “probably the kind of thing needed to make it happen.” It would “save a lot of distance and time” for trucks, and he believes a major new road could also serve to attract tourists and other visitors. “You’ve got some great terrain for roads up there,” he said. “It’s not the flat, uninteresting miles we have in so much of the country.”

To make it work, Samuel said there would need to be a customs agreement between the U.S. and Canada to allow Canadian trucks passage without border inspections at both ends of the road. “If they have to stop twice, that eats up most of the time savings,” he said. “I’ve seen the queues in Buffalo (N.Y.) They’re horrendous.” Hanington agrees that customs would have to be streamlined, though he pointed out that much Canadian freight is already sealed, and e-invoices are now used in various ports. “That would have to be dealt with, for sure,” he said.

Hanington also observed that the time saving would be most significant for trucks routed north from St. John through Calais. For those traveling through Moncton from Nova Scotia, it would not be as great an advantage. While privately owned or operated toll roads have been making a modest comeback in the U.S., Samuel said there are few projects comparable to what Vigue is proposing. Indiana and Illinois have sold or leased existing toll roads to private operators, and two new tollways have recently opened in suburban areas north of Denver, Colorado, and San Diego, California. But those roads are less than 10 miles long.

The best analogy to the trans-Maine road would be Texas’ attempts to build two long new roads. One would parallel I-35 north from Dallas to the Oklahoma border, essentially a bypass of an overburdened interstate that can’t be easily widened. The other, known as I-69, would traverse most of the state from the northeast corner to Mexico, some 650 miles, with Houston as the hub. In its southern stretches – on which construction could start next year – it would replace a largely two-lane road, U.S. 77, from Corpus Christi to the Mexican border. “That’s a rural area with low population density and a lot of wetlands,” Samuel said – and the closest thing anywhere in the country to the territory Vigue would like the Maine east-west highway to cross. “I’m not familiar with all the details,” Samuel said. “But you have to admit it’s intriguing.”

Vigue’s vision is considerably more modest than the massive Trans-Texas Corridor; the two roads mentioned above are part of a 4,000-mile network estimated to cost between $145-$185 billion. Nevertheless, he still could have his work cut out for him. The Trans-Texas Corridor, under discussion since 2005, has been criticized broadly by environmentalists, trade protectionists and landowners fearing takings by eminent domain. So far the project has no investors.

At MaineDOT, officials are watching with interest. “The department has no official position on the plan,” said Herb Thomson, director of communications. “We’d like to know more, and are looking forward to any public meetings.”

Vigue sees the east-west corridor as more than a road, and more than just conventional economic development. “Around the world, you see what is known as a crossroads effect,” he said. “Anywhere you create new connections, activity and investment picks up as people realize new opportunities.”

The 2,000-foot-wide corridor he envisions would have plenty of room for telecommunications, electric transmission lines and pipelines, he said. Rail could also benefit. “We’ve seen tremendous growth in sector, because it’s the most efficient way to move things,” he said. Rail-truck connections would be possible at Costigan and Brownville, reviving communities that have lain dormant ever since rail lost its place as the nation’s premier mode of transportation.

“Rail and trucks see each other as competitors, just as trains and buses used to,” Vigue said. “What we all need to realize is how different modes of transportation complement each other. We have to make the pie bigger, not keep worrying over our slice of the pie.” A successful road project could also make ventures like a container port at Sears Island more viable, he said.

Vigue believes that an east-west highway, built within seven years, can significantly enlarge the economic pie in Maine. “Without something like this, we’re looking at a long, slow decline of northern Maine – more of what we’ve already experienced,” he said. Vigue notes that Cianbro has become a major bridge-builder – it partnered with Reed & Reed on the Penobscot Narrows Bridge, and is currently building the new international crossing at Calais – but does not have experience with road and pavement. “We will develop the proposal,” he said, “and see where it takes us. If we need to get out of the way and let someone else take the lead, we’ll do that.”

He leaves little doubt about his determination to push for a successful conclusion.

“There’s all kinds of interest in this, in Maine and on both sides of the border. People understand what we’re talking about. And they’re beginning to believe we can get it done.”

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