Regional Planning for Washington County suddenly contradicts itself to prioritize EWC

By Chris Buchanan

Update as of June 8, 2014:  Eastern Maine Development Corporation receives $187 million federal grant “to develop a strategic plan following the loss of rail service and paper-making jobs.”  Link to article.  What is happening here is for-profit corporations like Mobilize Maine, and non-profits corporations that have joined forces with them, are using federal money to privatize regional and statewide development planning.

The following article was originally published on May 6, 2014.  Since then, we have learned that the reason why the East-West Corridor is now listed as a priority project for Washington and Aroostook counties is because Mobilize Maine has moved into Washington County and combined the two counties into one regional planning area.  Mobilize Maine seeks federal money, as well as investors who want to pay for a say in future economic development of the seven economic development districts in Maine.  One of their explicitly stated goals is to put the private sector in control of economic development planning.  See their website, MobilizeMaine.org.  More to come soon.

Here is the original article published May 6, 2014, where we first noticed the discrepancy in planning documents:

As of March 28, 2014, a new document appeared outlining regional transportation priorities to boost the economy of Washington and Aroostook Counties.  It came from a group called GROWashington and Aroostook, self-described as “a regional planning process focused on job creation, modern infrastructure, and healthy, affordable communities in the counties of Aroostook and Washington, here in northeastern Maine.”

There is a lot of digging to be done on this site, but the document that surprised me most was provided by a Downeast local, tipping us off to this new planning effort.  Entitled, “Washington County – Transportation Investment Strategic Priorities,” it is clearly outlining  a different plan with different priorities than what was reported to the Maine Department of Transportation as regional priorities back in 2007.

Indeed, in March 2007 a group of some of the same actors who appear to be supporting GROWashington & Aroostook identified priorities for Washington and Hancock counties as part of a Strategic Investment Plan for Corridors of Regional and Economic Significance (SIPCRES).  No where mentioned was a highspeed rail and truck corridor, which mirrors lone EWC proponent Peter Vigue’s current vision as outlined this month in Maine Magazine.

Interestingly, the SIPCRES for Region 4 (Washington & Hancock counties) identifies a measuring tool to define the level of priority of a transportation project, that was used to define the priority projects in 2007.  Broadly, the projects were measured by:

  • Economic Development
  • Quality of Life
  • Safety
  • Asset Preservation

A brief factual assessment of the East-West Corridor proposal in any one of its marketed manifestations for these criteria strike it from consideration immediately.  This would be an essay entirely of itself that I hope to write as soon as time allows.  Please contact me directly for information if you want answers immediately on these topics. chris(at)defendingwater(dot)net

Digging for more information, I came across the Downeast Coastal Corridor Multi-modal Plan, which was completed again by collaborative effort of regional economic development groups in 2010, and includes comprehensive studies of the area.  This was the final development plan that came out of the more general SIPCRES plan noted above.  The Downeast Coastal Corridor Multi-modal Plan, however, is very detailed including socioeconomic considerations, traffic counts, land uses, growth potential, and more.  Again, there was no mention whatsoever of a need for a new East-West Highway Corridor.  Rather, the study emphasizes multiple times the adequacy of Route 9 to meet international freight needs.  It seems that the improvements of existing East-West roads, consistent with the State of Maine’s best-choice decision back in 1999 when they spent thousands of taxpayer dollars on studies seeking improvements to East-West transit across Maine, is in fact adequate.  Many improvements, however, were suggested for Route 1, North / South connectors between Route 1 and Route 9 to improve access for commuters, tourists, and freight, as well as utilizing abandoned rail lines including a connector to the Port of Eastport.

In terms of development capacity of the region, these paragraphs from page 16, section 2.3.1 of the 2010 plan seem to really contradict Vigue’s promises, especially in regards to Maine becoming the bread-basket of the Northeast (emphasis added):

While regulatory controls are not likely to significantly influence the interaction between land use and transportation in most communities, non-regulatory solutions have played a more significant role. Notably, a combination of public and private land conservation efforts influence the character and spread of development along significant portions of Route 9, Route 191 and parts of Route 1 in eastern Washington County. Though not design as “access management” strategies, conserved lands such as the Baring Division of the Moosehorn NWR reduce sprawl along arterial highways. The potential for conservation projects focused at preserving agricultural and/or working forest lands may prove to be a useful tool in achieving access management, economic development, and transportation goals that are shared at the state, regional and local level.

In addition to political considerations, natural constraints will influence the range of solutions available to policy makers. A review of comprehensive plans indicates a predominance of poorly drained soils. For example, about 56 percent (16,676 acres) of all land in Gouldsboro is rated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as having a very low potential for low density development. Most other towns have similar constraints.

The natural resource maps from these plans indicate many development constraints along the Route 1 corridor, including wetlands, shore lands and areas with steep slopes. There are additional constraints related to rare and endangered species and significant wildlife habitats. In some cases, these natural constraints act as a natural barrier to sprawl limiting the extent of commercial development that will occur along Route 1; but they also limit the range of transportation solutions as mitigation costs associated with new infrastructure increase.

Currently, I am at a loss as to how the game shifted so dramatically between 2010 and 2014, but I encourage Washington County planners and residents to reexamine the priorities that they outlined in the past, acknowledge the facts that they spent time and money learning, and recognize that Vigue’s proposal not only contradicts the visions that they have expressed for themselves over the past several years, but would be actively harmful.

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