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East-West Corridor: Pig in a Poke

Op-Ed by Jane Crosen | February 15, 2013

On January 18, in Eastport and Calais, Cianbro’s program manager Darryl Brown presented the company’s current plans for routing an East-West Corridor through eastern Maine. As with previous promotions, this one was long on vague promises about economic development and avoidance of sensitive areas, but short on maps showing the actual route. Brown’s presentation did, however, reveal enough details for people well acquainted with the downeast landscape to make an educated guess of the Corridor’s route and impacts.

The privately owned transportation and utility corridor across Maine would include a four-lane divided highway authorized for Canadian tandem trailer trucks. Other uses could include pipelines and utilities, although Brown didn’t mention these.

Earlier reports indicated the Corridor proponents were intending to follow the Stud Mill Road, which has a 2,000′ ROW but crosses or closely passes several significant conservation lands, including Sunkhaze NWR, the Machias River Waterway, and the Downeast Lakes Forestry Partnership’s Sunrise Easement. The recent announcement of Cianbro’s commitment to avoid routing through the Sunrise Easement lands came as good news to many (including myself) concerned about the impacts a fenced truck highway and utility corridor would have on eastern Maine’s environment and recreation opportunities. However, the route Cianbro is now proposing would mean cutting a new and longer swath closer to the coast, still crossing the Machias watershed, six other river systems, and a number of conserved areas.

According to Brown, Cianbro ran into a roadblock with routing through Moosehorn NWR, so they decided to “turn challenge into opportunity” by looping closer to the coast. Despite Halifax’s woes from underuse and a proposed superport in Melford, Nova Scotia, Brown believes connectivity to unobstructed deep-water ports at Eastport and Calais would make Maine a major player in global shipping. He wants to encourage development of big-box distribution centers in outlying areas providing jobs handling cargo off super container ships from Asia.

From Calais they now plan to route the 500’ corridor around the east side of Moosehorn’s Baring unit, then south to Route 214 where they may build an interchange for access from Eastport. From Route 214 the Corridor would run west, south of Route 9, likely crossing Route 9 near Wesley where there may be an interchange allowing access from Machias. From there the Corridor would run north to “utilize a 35-mile section of the Stud Mill Road right-of-way” west toward the Penobscot River, crossing north of Bangor. There would be an interchange at Route 95, and another north of Dexter on Route 15.

Besides the Downeast Lakes Land Trust, Brown said Cianbro has “reached out to” several other major conservation and recreation groups. His presentation emphasized the company’s “commitment” to avoid “most” conserved lands, tribal lands, wetlands, deeryards, and vernal pools, including endangered species habitat, as much as possible. (In previous presentations Cianbro “committed” to avoiding “all” conserved lands.) Never has the public seen any mapped portion of the actual intended route. Brown said the company’s routing plans are still a work in progress, and not something they are ready to reveal on maps.

Looking at all the lakes, ponds, rivers, and streams in the area east and south of Moosehorn, and from the Machias–East Machias watersheds west to Beddington and the Stud Mill Road, it’s hard to imagine how the developers would be able to route the Corridor through this area while honoring all their “commitments.” Besides the Machias River Waterway, it would impact or cross a number of other important salmon and trout streams, wildlife management areas, and working forest and conservation lands open to hunting, fishing, and other recreational use by people throughout eastern Maine, supporting guiding, ecotourism, and other local enterprises. The area between Calais, Cobscook Bay, and the Machias River frames many pristine lakes and ponds settled with camps. Eastport and other nearby coastal communities enjoy thriving local and tourist retail and service economies. How would these fare surrounded by major transportation infrastructure carrying heavy trucks loaded with Chinese-manufactured goods to supply big-box retailers? (Brown noted Lewiston’s Walmart distribution center serves over 300 trucks per day.) Would the highway/Corridor development really bring meaningful jobs or long-term benefit to the people in the area it runs through? How would it impact the quality of life in eastern Maine communities? Taxes would be paid to the towns it runs through, but at what cost?

How would the limited-access highway affect travel patterns on local roads and trails? The highway proponents say they would build overpasses or ramps for “all” multiuse gravel roads, and would accommodate wildlife passage with “appropriately located” wildlife crossings and tunnels. They plan to run a recreational trail statewide along the highway for ATVs, snowmobiles, hikers, and horseback riders “providing an outstanding recreational experience.”

Promises aside, common sense tells us highways built for high-speed heavyweight tandem truck traffic cannot weave around every damp spot along the way (and this region has plenty of water). Wetlands are filled in; ramps, roadbeds, and bridge abutments are built up; interchanges and service facilities are developed. Where will all that sand and gravel come from? How much of downeast Maine’s uniquely well-preserved glacial landscape will be scraped up and used to build the highway–or exported? What about the aquifers under the gravel, the streamsheds, lakes, and ponds fed by them? What will happen to the cold-water fisheries? What besides Asian commodities and Canadian products will trucks be carrying? Accidents involving heavy trucks have heavy consequences. What about chemical and fuel spills, de-icing and runoff? Brown minimized the highway’s footprint, but the environmental impacts could be disastrous and very expensive or impossible to clean up, affecting the whole region downstream to the coast.

Such a sensitively routed, state-of-the-art highway as Brown describes would be expensive to build–over four times the cost of improving east-west rail lines between Montreal and eastern Canada, as estimated by the Sierra Club. Rail transport is exponentially safer than truck transport, with far less environmental impact. Many people ask, why is rail not good enough to meet demand for faster east-west freight transport? Brown says trucks do better at meeting global demand for just-in-time delivery. Or is there something else in the pipeline? Maine’s existing east-west rail lines, running not far north of the proposed Corridor route, are already being used to transport tar sands oil from the Alberta oil fields to the Irving refinery in St. John.

The proposed route aligns with convenient export of other natural resources in eastern and northern Maine increasingly valuable in the global economy. Could the Corridor open the door to more wind farms and transmission lines? What about eastern Maine’s abundant supply of fresh water, not just for human consumption but used in gas fracking?

Cianbro is promoting the Corridor as a construction project; who are the investors? As a woman in Calais asked, is it possible a swath across Maine might belong to someone from China? Brown replied that foreign ownership is not only possible but likely according to current trends.

Although growing public opposition has brought several Corridor-related bills before the legislature, the proponents of this project, backed by powerful corporate and political interests, are intent on pushing it through–and not disclosing much about the route or impacts of this proverbial pig in a poke. It would be well for everyone in eastern Maine to learn and demand more information about the project and consider what far-reaching impacts it would have on the environment, economies, communities, and quality of life.

Stop the East-West Corridor, a statewide coalition of concerned citizens and groups working to raise public awareness about the proposed project and impacts, is planning two informational meetings in eastern Maine: in Calais on March 13 at WCCC’s Riverview lecture hall, and in Machias on March 27 at UMM in Room 102 of the Science Building. Both events will run from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. and will combine a panel presentation with opportunity for public conversation. Links to articles, study maps, and other information are posted on the coalition’s website, www.stopthecorridor.org.

Jane Crosen is a mapmaker known for her hand-drawn maps of Maine regions. Living in Penobscot, she and her husband have a camp near Wesley. She does eastern outreach for Stop the East-West Corridor.

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