Analysis: Nails in the coffin
by Lance Tapley | Thursday September 6th, 2012
This past spring, out of the blue, Republican Governor Paul LePage and the GOP-controlled Maine Legislature funded a $300,000 study by the Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT) of the feasibility of a corporate-owned, toll superhighway across the middle of the state. It would go 220 miles from New Brunswick to Quebec, from Calais to Coburn Gore.
An East-West Highway had been proposed and dismissed several times in the past 70 years. Suddenly, it became hot. Just as suddenly, it became cold — well, lukewarm.
In August, out of the blue again, its chief legislative promoter, Republican Senator Doug Thomas, of Ripley, asked LePage to put the study on hold. The governor immediately agreed.
They had been spooked by the opposition in rural central Maine of a powerful populist, election-year pairing of grass-roots environmentalists and property-rights advocates — an Occupy–Tea Party fusion.
These folks were particularly incensed by the possibility the state might seize property — using its right of “eminent domain” — to ram the highway into existence to please the corporate powers.
The highway’s chief salesman, Peter Vigue, CEO of the big construction corporation Cianbro — whose speeches had gathered growing news-media attention as well as swelling numbers of sign-waving protesters — issued an unconvincing statement he was okay with what the officials decided. Then he slunk off stage.
The highway opponents — many in a Stop the East-West Corridor coalition — vowed to keep fighting. They assumed the highway, with its vaguely described “communications and utility corridor,” might rise from the dead again once Election Day is past.
But while it’s wise for opponents to keep a watch over the political graveyard, there are many reasons to believe the East-West Highway is not only dead, it actually has long been dead and its reappearance this year was that of a phantom, a ghost.
Here are 15 of those reasons, and we threw in a bonus reason to boot! (Consider them one for each Maine county.) They are roadblocks to the highway’s construction — and perhaps nails in its coffin. They zoom in on Vigue’s plan, but many pertain to any grand East-West proposal, though many wouldn’t block a mere upgrading of some of Maine’s existing roads. We’ll start with a few unnoticed roadblocks:
OVERLOOKED DEAL KILLERS
• SIXTY-ONE MILES OF A CANADIAN SUPERHIGHWAY The East-West Highway, says Peter Mills, director of the Maine Turnpike Authority, needs “full cooperation from Quebec.” It would require a superhighway from the Maine border to the existing Montreal expressway at Sherbrooke.
The peaceful, hilly countryside from the border to Sherbrooke is an important Quebec tourist and farming region, the Eastern Townships. It includes two national parks. Given the character of this region, it’s striking that our big neighbor — including its environmentalists and environmental-permitting process — hasn’t been engaged on this issue. Patrick Binns, the Canadian consul in Boston, says it hasn’t been much discussed in his country.
Here’s a huge Canadian barrier: light pollution from a superhighway and a big border-crossing station would be a major threat to Canada’s most important astronomical observatory, on Mont Mégantic in Mont-Mégantic National Park, only 14 air miles from Coburn Gore.
In fact, the International Dark-Sky Association has established the world’s first International Dark Sky Reserve around the observatory, encompassing 2123 square miles. A superhighway would have to pass through the reserve’s most protected zone.
This is a serious reserve. Sherbrooke — 37 air miles from the observatory — and 33 other cities and towns have taken light-reduction actions such as replacing 2500 outdoor street lamps.
• NATIVE AMERICAN OPPOSITION From the vague path that Vigue has sketched (see accompanying map), the superhighway might need to go through Penobscot Indian Nation land in western Maine, trespass on its Penobscot River water rights (now being litigated between the tribe and the state), or touch the many river islands the tribe possesses north of Indian Island, next to Old Town. (Vigue has never disclosed an exact path.)
“I personally am opposed to it,” says Penobscot Chief Kirk Francis. “And if indeed it does impact tribal land — which I cannot see how it would not — I think our tribe would be very diligent in its opposition.”
As sovereign nations, Native American tribes are not bound by environmental permitting deadlines, says Kristina Egan, a former top Massachusetts transportation planner and now a Freeport selectwoman.
• APPALACHIAN TRAIL The AT is a beloved national institution — and, officially, a national park. The AT would have to go over the superhighway or tunnel under it — apparently, near Monson or Bingham. And the highway would be visible from many vantages along Maine’s and the nation’s premier hiking trail.
The Department of the Interior would have to agree to a highway crossing. Venerable nonprofit guardians of the trail, such as the national Appalachian Trail Conference and the Maine Appalachian Trail Club, may object to the highway. They are able to mount an aggressive lobbying and legal effort.
• EMINENT-DOMAIN FEARS The highway “has united people across political lines,” says Chris Buchanan, of Defending Water for Life in Maine. She is coordinating the grass-roots resistance.
Although Vigue changed his tune — from saying he hadn’t ruled out eminent domain to saying it wouldn’t be used — many locals along the highway’s general route don’t believe him.
Vigue changed his tune on another issue directly relevant to the amount of land in play. He at first had talked enthusiastically about a 2000-foot-wide right-of-way for the highway, an electricity transmission line, and a natural-gas pipeline. A nearly half-mile-wide corridor times 220 miles equals 53,000 acres or 83 square miles.
He later reduced the width to 500 feet for most of the highway. (By comparison, the Maine Turnpike right-of-way is generally 300 feet.) Vigue’s shrunken, fuzzier intentions on the corridor also have met disbelief.
Transportation experts are more than skeptical that a superhighway-utility corridor across Maine could be built without the state taking property.
“They’re just going to convince owners to sell land?” Egan asks, with incredulity. In fact, an MDOT official told the Phoenix earlier this year that eminent domain would be used as a last resort.
Among the most adamant opponents to the seizing of private property by the government are Ron-Paul-libertarian, Tea Party Republicans, who often don’t see eye-to-eye with corporate Republicans. (Ask Mitt Romney about this last point.)
Senator Thomas was paying the most attention to this Tea Party constituency when, in a huge about-face, he not only opposed going forward with the highway study but also said he would introduce a constitutional amendment in the next legislative session to ban the practice of eminent domain. (First, of course, he has to survive the election, now not at all certain.)
Such a constitutional amendment is unlikely to go anywhere because it probably would prevent many new roads from being built, not to mention other public-infrastructure projects.
• GRASS-ROOTS AND ENVIRONMENTAL-GROUP OPPOSITION The home-grown environmentalist opposition sprang up with striking speed. Many people in the poor but beautiful countryside that the highway would traverse — hailing from communities like Dexter, Dover-Foxcroft, and Guilford — saw their tranquil way of life threatened.
“Loss of Maine’s unique mystique” is how Buchanan describes the peril.
These people feared Vigue’s brand of promised regional economic renewal. They turned out in scores and even hundreds to protest whenever Vigue, bodyguards in tow, gave speeches in small towns. Thomas told the Maine Today papers that he had stepped onto a “hornets’ nest.”
Environmental specifics — the highway’s menace to water, wildlife, and air quality — provoked opposition from the Natural Resources Council of Maine and the Sierra Club. With sizeable memberships, seasoned staffs, and relatively deep pockets, these also are formidable opponents. Smaller groups joined in, including Restore: The North Woods, the Forest Ecology Network, and Environment Maine.
• FISH AND WILDLIFE OBJECTIONS Fishermen and –women, hunters, and other wildlife enthusiasts have not yet expressed opposition to a superhighway cutting the state in half. The highway would destroy or severely impact scores if not hundreds of trout streams and thousands of acres of animal habitat.
Judging by news-media coverage, the issue has yet to be discussed within the fish and wildlife constituencies. But the opposition could be considerable because these folks number in the hundreds of thousands of Mainers and out-of-staters from all walks of life.
“To get to your hunting camp in the North Woods, you might have to go 40 miles out of your way because the corridor will block your current direct passage,” says Jonathan Carter, of the Forest Ecology Network.
More important, animal movements would be blocked. Vigue has said some “wildlife bridges” over the highway could be constructed. But studies show wildlife-overpass effectiveness is limited.
Under environmental law, protection for animals has “to be designed for specific species,” Egan notes. An EPA report quotes one study: “Foxes, raccoons, skunks, and coyotes [appear] to shun interstate rights of way.” That study also found superhighways accounted for more than three-quarters of all animals killed on all roads.
At $1-million-plus a bridge, a lot of animal overpasses on a 220-mile road might be too expensive for a developer.
• INTERNATIONAL OPPOSITION TO UTILITY USE There would be widespread environmentalist opposition to a nonrenewable-energy corridor, especially if it were designed to transport controversial tar-sands oil from Alberta to Maritimes ports, as some environmentalists see likely.
Carter says international environmental-group opposition also would exist because the highway would contribute to global warming through the cutting down of forests (they are “carbon sinks”) and the increased carbon dioxide produced by thousands of vehicles using the highway daily.
• SECRECY In 2010 the Legislature passed, with no debate, a “Public-Private Partnership” law for transportation projects, which MDOT has said it would use for this project. The law has a clause exempting planning for such a road from the state Freedom of Access (freedom-of-information) law.
If the highway were built as a totally private project, there would be little to no requirement for the planning to be made public, including for feeder-road widening and interchanges. Maine people might find this secrecy hard to take.
• ENVIRONMENTAL PERMITTING Many permits would be needed from state and federal agencies — such as Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection and Land Use Regulation Commission and agencies administering the federal Clean Water Act and endangered-species law.
The Clean Water Act is especially pertinent. The highway would have to cross or go near countless ponds, streams, and bogs, as well as cross the big Penobscot and Kennebec Rivers. It would have “major permitting challenges,” Egan says.
Even a supporter like Maria Fuentes, Augusta’s top lobbyist for highway interests, admits “the permitting may just be impossible.”
If agencies approved the highway, court battles would ensue. The prospect of a drawn-out struggle would weigh heavily on a would-be developer’s decision to attempt to build the highway.
• RAILROAD ALTERNATIVE Federal environmental law requires the “least environmentally damaging practicable alternative” be considered before a project is permitted.
A much less environmentally damaging and cheaper alternative already exists for moving freight and passengers between New Brunswick and Quebec: upgrading the active but little-used railroad line crossing Maine to the north of the proposed highway. (See map.) Half the line is owned by an American company, the other half by a Canadian firm.
But the modest use now of this rail alternative speaks poorly of the traffic potential of an East-West Highway. Passenger service ended in 1994, and “if there’s a great hue and cry for delivering freight,” why isn’t the railroad doing this? asks Mills.
• UNCLEAR PUBLIC AND PRIVATE BENEFITS For environmental-agency approval, the highway “has to have overwhelming public benefit,” says Egan. And for banks and corporations to finance it, a private benefit (profitability) would have to be foreseeable.
Vigue foresees gigantic container ships coming to Maritimes ports and Eastport’s deepwater harbor. Trucks would use the highway to haul containers to Montreal, Toronto, and Chicago.
It’s true that when the Panama Canal’s widening is completed in 2015, there will be competition for giant-container-ship traffic. But big ports on the East Coast, like New York, Baltimore, and Miami, already are dredging harbors and erecting huge cranes to grab this traffic.
And “containers go where the people are,” says Matt Jacobson, a former railroad and business-development official and now an executive at Oxford Networks, a communications company.
He adds: “I don’t think any port in Maine is going to benefit” from increased ship traffic because of the Panama Canal widening.
Even if Canada benefitted from container traffic, American regulators would determine whether the highway project would go forward. Benefits to the United States and Maine would be considered — not benefits to Canada.
Vigue says the highway would revitalize Maine’s “hollow middle,” as it calls it, but he has provided few specifics. Any economic benefit within Maine, say the highway’s opponents — besides some service-station jobs — would mostly go to big, out-of-state corporations, especially Canadian ones.
Canada already takes much wood from Maine to mill into lumber. Buchanan says the highway “would give Canada even more of a competitive advantage by streamlining their access to port.” (In 2008 Vigue’s team suggested to Mainebiz that the highway financier might be foreign.)
Many opponents fear the highway-plus-corridor is a scheme for an economic and environmental rape of Maine by big corporations, Canadian or American. Think: mountaintop mining, industrial groundwater removal, wind towers on the peaks, trash hauled into the state in enormous quantities.
Profitability for the highway owner would depend on toll amounts multiplied by traffic volume. A Vigue study in 2008 estimated tolls across Maine would need to be $100 to $200 for trucks and $25 to $50 for cars. Those sums might make it too expensive for many cars and some trucks.
A 1999 state study found a Calais-Coburn Gore highway to be not economically sound. “I don’t understand the practicality, the utility of it,” says Mills, of the highway.
• HIGH COST The cost is apt to be much, much more than the $2.1 billion in Vigue’s 2008 projections.
The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials doesn’t have cost-per-mile numbers of constructing superhighways because the numbers vary widely around the country, a spokesman says.
But a Michigan Department of Transportation official says the $44 million a mile cost to build a superhighway through a rural-suburban area in Michigan is possibly “comparable to what is proposed in Maine.” At that rate, a 220-mile highway would cost $9.7 billion. Although Vigue’s route might be cheaper to build on because it goes through a lot of forest, even half of $9.7 billion is more than twice his number.
The purchase of land alone for the highway might cost $1.4 billion, using International Paper’s calculation — revealed in a footnote to a federal appeals court decision — of how much it expects to receive from an East-West Highway developer for its 55 miles of Washington County’s Stud Mill Road ($353 million, or $6.4 million a mile).
The highway will be expensive, but a corporate developer will pay for it, not the taxpayer, right? But a developer usually needs to borrow money for such a project, and that might be too expensive.
According to Mills, a private developer for sizeable projects must pay a 10-to-15 percent interest rate on the money it borrows, contrasted with the 2-to-4 percent interest that government outfits like the Maine Turnpike Authority pay to bondholders. (Vigue’s financial projections have the private owner borrowing at 8 percent.)
This difference in the cost of borrowed money exists because interest earned by investors in public-agency bonds is exempt from federal and state income tax, along with the lower risk of lending money to a unit of government.
This is why, Mills says, that private financing of projects like the East-West Highway “is so rare here in the US.” Some experts think it would be unprecedented.
• BORDER DELAYS AND FEDERAL EXPENSE Even if significant traffic on the highway could be expected, post-9/11 Homeland Security, immigration, and customs controls probably mean big truck and tourist delays at the Canadian border.
Border controls are “a huge bureaucratic impediment,” Mills says. The US consul in Quebec has said Canadians are “intimidated” by the US border.
With border delays, Canadian trucks “aren’t going to save any time” by crossing Maine east-to-west instead of going over the top of the state, as many of them do now, says Jonathan Carter.
If the highway were built, the tiny US-Quebec frontier post at Coburn Gore would have to be enormously expanded. Given the nearly $60-million price tag for the recent upgrade of the US border station at Calais, tens of millions of dollars would have to be appropriated by Congress — and by Canada on its side — to improve the border crossings.
This optional spending is hard to justify in an era when governments have a hard time meeting essential expenditures.
• THREATS TO MOUNTAIN TOURISM For recreationists and businesses serving them in the forested Maine mountains, the highway would be a dramatic intrusion.
For example, it would be very visible from the state-owned Bigelow Preserve, which encompasses the 12-mile-long Bigelow Mountain Range and many miles of the AT. The preserve was created in a citizens’ initiative — a statewide vote — in 1976. Its defenders are passionate. (Disclosure: the author led that effort.)
Mountain tourism in the Bigelow-Sugarloaf area is significant, evidenced by the creation of the Maine Huts and Trails system, which now has three huts (small, rustic lodges) along a 45-mile trail. Twelve huts along 180 miles are planned. The trail serves hikers, mountain-bikers, cross-country-skiers, and snowshoers.
The superhighway would have to cross this trail. Opposition from Maine Huts and Trails’ powerful corporate backers, like LL Bean, is a possibility.
• FINANCIAL RISK FOR THE PUBLIC Only a few highways in the US have been owned by corporations, but a number of them have gone financially belly-up.
If that happened with the East-West Highway, and the state took it over, the taxpayers would wind up paying for repairs, snow removal, state-police patrols, toll collecting, and other expenses that Vigue now claims would be paid for privately. If the corporate owner couldn’t make a go of it, that would likely mean the state, too, would find it a money pit.
Opponents suspect the public would be asked to guarantee loans or kick in cash. Vigue insists no public money will be needed. But the 2010 public-private partnership law sets up a specific legal template for financial sharing between the state and private entities, and state transportation officials have said Vigue’s highway would be organized under the provisions of this law.
BONUS REASON: POLITICS
• PARTISANSHIP AND NONPARTISANSHIP Democratic politicians, who are somewhat less deferential to corporate interests than Republicans, have begun to discern that the highway is unpopular.
Many Democrats in the House voted for the $300,000 study, including Representative Herbert Clark, of Millinocket, Senator Thomas’s opponent in his re-election campaign. But Clark turned against it weeks before Thomas did.
“The whole thing doesn’t add up,” a pro-business Democratic state senator, Bill Diamond, of Windham, told the Press Herald on the subject of the highway. Democratic state senators, in fact, voted in a bloc against the highway study.
Apprehensions in the political class about the East-West Highway go beyond partisan politics and the Occupy-Tea Party grassroots folks. Peter Mills, for example, is a former Republican state senator and primary candidate for governor whose judgment is respected on many issues by people on both sides of the political divide.
Many thoughtful people believe big new superhighways should not be build ad-hoc — anything this huge should be carefully weighed against alternatives. Many transportation policy types feel Maine’s decaying bridges and roads should be repaired and rebuilt before mammoth new roads are constructed.
“The state of Maine should not build any additional capacity for transportation” until we take care of what we have, says former Democratic state Senator Dennis Damon, a prior chairman of the legislative Transportation Committee.
Given the number and size of these 16 roadblocks, the fact that Vigue’s idea is taken seriously is tribute to the reflexive deference paid in many political and news-media quarters to someone who — in Maine terms, anyway — represents Big Business.
Not that it’s 100 percent impossible that the highway will be built. True Big Business, such as the Canadian and American energy giants that might have the most to gain from the highway-cum-utility corridor, have something potentially game-changing on their side: Big Money and the propaganda (“jobs!”) and political influence it can buy.
Still, the roadblocks are immense. “A delusional idea,” Carter calls the highway. “Pie-in-the-sky ridiculousness,” says Buchanan.
Unless eminent domain is used, “there’s a 0.02 percent chance it’ll be built,” says Alan Caron, an experienced, moderate political hand and former head of GrowSmart Maine, the anti-sprawl group.
To return to the graveyard metaphor, it’s almost as if there’s a tombstone every mile for the rationale for the East-West Highway.