Redrawing the map
By putting Maine at the center of the northeast region – and making prudent investments in our infrastructure – an important new study says the state can change how the region and world perceive it.
By Douglas Rooks
Mainers are used to seeing themselves at the end of the road – far from the big East Coast markets that provide much of the nation’s economic activity. That far-away-from perception often includes Boston, the hub of the New England economy. Canadians look at the situation differently. Canadians see Maine as a large blank spot, and the international border as an obstacle to go around to get to the rest of their country rather than a place to be engaged, for mutual benefit, says Glen Weisbrod of at the Economic Development Research Group in Boston.
Changing perceptions on both sides of the border is the task of an ambitious new plan, “Northeast CanAm Connections: Integrating the Economy and Transportation.” Looked at in the broadest terms, with more populated areas both to the east and to the west, Maine is a “hollow center” in the region’s development, the plan argues. Filling that void would create benefits for Maine – and for all the states and provinces surrounding it.
Weisbrod is one of the consultants that prepared the “Northeast CanAm Connections” plan. The study was initiated by MaineDOT and has been in preparation for more than two years.
The plan’s executive summary was rolled out at the late summer meeting of the New England Governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers in Bar Harbor. It made a highly favorable impression, according to Greg Nadeau, deputy commissioner of MaineDOT. The premise behind the CanAm plan is that much of the Northeast CanAm region – Maine, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, northern New York, New Hampshire, Vermont, Québec, and Ontario – has under-performed economically over the last several decades, and that improving its performance means providing transportation connections in all modes, but especially highway and rail, that can re-ignite economic development throughout the region.
“By focusing on our strategic position in the global economy, we hope to get people to take a new look,” said Nadeau. “Canada needs projects like this at least as much or more than Maine does,” says Fred Michaud, a senior planner at MaineDOT. Direct routes are important in all forms of transportation, and bypassing the Maine corridor is one of the reasons why the Maritimes seem remote from such booming parts of Canada as the greater Toronto area, he said. “It also reinforces the perception that we are at the end of a cul-de-sac rather than being central to a large region of North America.” Maine also can become much more than a throughway for goods made and being sold elsewhere, he added. “If you’re just a transit point, that doesn’t get you anywhere,” Weisbrod said.
But creating connecting points is a different, and more sustainable, concept. Intermodal centers and other transfer points create hubs, and provide opportunities. Maine has several promising sites, from land-level, double-stack freight rail at the Mack Point marine terminal at Searsport to railroad intermodal connections at Lewiston, and potentially in Waterville and other north-central junctions.
Each point at which freight shipments commence has the potential for significant growth by in-state shippers and allied industries. Fred Michaud points out that freight is a highly competitive industry, and reducing costs through better access points and transfers and, ultimately, more direct routes, can quickly change decisions about how to move goods and connect services.
The CanAm plan executive summary emphasizes the idea of “seamless movement” as a critical point in better realizing the Northeast region’s economic potential. The concept is illustrated both in seemingly small changes and much larger ones.
The often vexing question of truck weights in Maine is one important example. Many states have exemptions to federal interstate highway weight limits, and can move 100,000-pound cargoes on all routes. Canada also has fairly uniform 100,000-pound rules, and some provinces permit even heavier payloads. Maine, however, can only run 80,000-pound loads on all interstate miles north of the junction of I-95 and Route 3 in Augusta. Heavier trucks routinely ply downtown areas in Bangor, Brewer, Waterville, and other northern service centers, causing delays and prompting safety concerns. To date, the Maine congressional delegation hasn’t had much luck in overcoming resistance to what the plan calls “harmonizing” truck weight regulations. But a region-wide focus on the costs of continuing such conflicting rules could cause policymakers to look at the question anew. The plan lists realigning truck weights and other conflicting rules as “low cost, high value” investments.
Nadeau said the truck weight question can be approached from a new angle in part because “the technology has changed.” New configurations of trailers and cargoes make it possible to move heavier loads more safely and with less damage to roads, he said. The Baldacci administration is working with New Brunswick officials on a pilot project that can demonstrate these points in a way that could ultimately persuade national governments on both sides of the international border.
New road and rail connections also form part of the “seamless movement” equation. One example of a much-anticipated change is the new international border station at Calais, part of a joint U.S.-Canadian project to replace the old downtown crossing to St. Stephen. High-tech capabilities offer the opportunity to reduce or even eliminate waits due to customs inspections.
Some part of the “seamless” concept will involve major new construction. The plan includes a northern route for an east-west highway through Maine as a medium-range objective, and a more southerly route as a long-range possibility. The northern highway would be aimed at connections from Canada through New Hampshire and Vermont and on to Montréal and Toronto. The southern route would provide service from New York through the Midwest, avoiding the East Coast bottlenecks that have only been growing in size and intensity.
Again, the chance for success in convincing public and private sector decision-makers to take on such a huge new infrastructure investment – at least $1 billion just for the Maine section – will improve if such projects can be seen as regional priorities, with the region defined as embracing both the United States and Canada.
“We don’t have the resources to build it ourselves,” said Greg Nadeau. “But Maine can be the linchpin between the Maritime provinces, a resource-rich, but not market rich area,” and the rest of the Northeast from Boston to Toronto, where the markets are.
The plan is careful to weigh costs and benefits to show which investments will be most productive. It reports that “the highest benefit-cost ratios are achieved by the harmonization [of regulations] and northern-highway scenarios, which are also the lowest-cost scenarios.” The cost of land and absence of conflicts with other uses are the main reason why the northern highway route has a greater cost-benefit ratio than the southern route.
Weisbrod said he considers it a plus that both private and public dollars are being considered along the east-west corridor through Maine.
A proposal put forward by Cianbro Chairman Peter Vigue for a toll road built by private investors is the first such plan for Maine, but is not unique from a larger perspective, he said. Spanish and Australian companies have built such roads elsewhere, and new toll roads in several U.S. states have been advancing recently.
Looking at other projects regionally can yield a different estimate of their cost and effectiveness. Proposals for a cargo port on Sears Island have been debated for more than 30 years, but the focus has been largely on the immediate costs and benefits to Maine itself. But with few East Coast ports adequate to handle container freight – and New York/Newark at or near capacity – such projects need to be considered against expanded facilities at Saint John, New Brunswick, and a new port at the Strait of Canso in Nova Scotia, Weisbrod said.
The executive summary is highly specific in enumerating the particular benefits for each state and province in improving connections through Maine. For all starting points, implementing improvements would “reduce vulnerability to future bottlenecks,” “expand total volume of overseas trade,” and “expand bi-national (U.S.-Canadian) trade and tourism.”
The last point is one often missed in transportation surveys. Weisbrod said that streamlining highway and rail connections is assumed to be important to freight shippers, but that the same conditions influence where tourists end up spending their dollars. Although Maine has seen tourism grow to become its top economic sector, it may be missing much broader opportunities to promote visitation to parts of the state now often bypassed.
Fred Michaud said that the meetings that launched the CanAm plan began in June 2006 in Boston, with a strong turnout not only of regional transportation officials, but by members of the economic development community as well. “We recognized early on that this was not strictly a transportation study, but rather an economic study of the region to understand the extent to which transportation infrastructure or lack thereof affects our overall economic vitality.” MaineDOT became the host agency for many of the sessions and between-meeting consultations. Only by connecting traditional transportation interests to the larger economy, he said, does Maine seem likely to engage policymakers at high enough levels to change perceptions and results, he said.
Nadeau said it’s taken longer than originally expected for the full-length plan to be released, but that it’s better to wait until the conditions, as the plan puts it, for “integrating the economy and transportation” can be met.
“We need the economic development people fully engaged. We need not only their input, but their support as we try to move forward,” he said. “This isn’t a plan that’s designed to go up on somebody’s shelf. It’s meant to be used and acted on for years and even decades to come.”