Solutions to Northern New England’s East-West Travel Woes

Interstate 695 Exit 2 - Baltimore to Philadelphia

photo credit: brewbooks

“You can’t get there from here” is a common expression for the fact that going east-to-west by automobile in Northern New England is a daunting task.  For example, one east-west trip we take regularly is only 120 miles but takes nearly 3 hours.  An interstate would cut that travel time in half.  The Google map below shows several possible new interstate routes that, in our opinion, would help alleviate this serious transportation problem.

Of course, the topic of an east-west highway is a well-worn area.  We don’t claim to bring anything new to the table except to help put all of these ideas into one convenient location–which you’ll know is helpful if you’ve ever tried to google “east-west highway.”  Also, the map does incorporate many of the ideas drawn from hours of our own reading of the resources listed below.

Reasons for an East-West Highway:

  • Economic Development–Northern New England’s economic fate has always been tied to the economic engine of southern New England.  The north-south orientation of the interstate system perpetuated that dependency.  An east-west highway would allow for economic synergies within Northern New England, especially for indigenous economic sectors such as the wood industry and agriculture (see Hardwick, Vermont’s agriculture renaissance for example).  These synergies could help these industries better reach the economies-of-scale necessary to compete on the global stage.
  • Safety–Since east-west travel is so slow, it encourages speeding.  Not only are the roads not designed to handle high speeds such as having sudden, sharp curves, but there is also wildlife, especially moose, to consider.  Many of these roads do not have break-down lanes, so animals can creep very close to the road and often do so to get to left-over winter salt.  Obviously, the closer they are to the travel lanes then the greater the chance for an accident.
  • International Relations–For Canadian truckers, Maine is geographic barrier if you’re trying to get from Nova Scotia to Montreal.  Traveling around Maine adds four hours to a Canadian truckers journey which means consuming more gas and creating more pollution.  Creating a transportation shortcut through Northern New England would surely be looked upon favorably by our northern neighbors.
  • Time Cost–As we mentioned in the opener, east-west travel can take twice as long as the equivalent mileage on an interstate due to lower speed limits.  Since time is money, especially for business trips, an east-west highway would shave year’s (worth millions of dollars) of travel time in Northern New England.

Reasons Against an East-West Highway:

  • Environment–Building an interstate is a messy business.  New right-of-ways will have to be made requiring, in some cases, forest to be cut down, mountains to be moved (at least partially) and wetlands to be filled in.
  • Price-Tag–New interstates are not cheap.  Probably the number one reason why an east-west highway has not been built is because it has been predicated on receiving matching highway funds from the federal government(up to 80 percent of the costs).  It would be financially difficult for Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont to go it alone, especially given their aging demographics.  Though it may be possible to do it privately . . . see below.

East-West Highway Resources:

  • Maine Department of Transportation: East-West Highway Study

The Most Recent East-West Highway Proposal: reports that Peter Vigue, the President and CEO of Cianbro Construction Company recently proposed to privately build, via a toll road, an east-west highway in Maine:

The asphalt was barely cool on the last four-lane section of Interstate 95 in 1981 when people in Maine began talking about building a matching superhighway from east to west. Over the decades since, the idea rose and fell almost as often as the tide, each time sounding plausible and each time always floating just beyond the fingertips of the possible.

Now the east-west highway is back again, this time with a twist. Rather than depending on public financing to upgrade existing highways in a jury-rigged network zigzagging across the state and bisecting dozens of cities and small towns, Peter Vigue, the president and CEO of Cianbro Construction Company, is proposing a privately financed and privately built toll road from Calais to Coburn Gore.

The billion-dollar, four-lane highway would run along the route of the privately owned Stud Mill Road between Baileyville and Costigan, then south of Moosehead to Route 27 north of Eustis. It would have no weight limits – unlike Interstate 95 north of Augusta – and allow tandem-trailer trucks. Its natural market would be the two thousand trucks that cross Maine’s borders with Canada each day and the four thousand more that make the trip over the top of the state on Canadian highways, along with other travelers looking to slice four hours off their travel time between St. John and Quebec City.

Vigue is convinced it will rebuild the economy of northern Maine, put the state square in the center of a major transportation trend, improve relations with Canada, and bring new energy sources into Maine. And he’s convinced it can be finished in five years.

This is no pie-in-the-sky midnight rambling. Cianbro is the largest construction company in the state, one of the largest in New England, with jobs under its belt from Maine to the Gulf of Mexico. Its projects here have included building floating oil rig platforms on the Portland waterfront and the recently erected Penobscot Narrows Bridge between Prospect and Verona Island.

Vigue says he already has support from a New York City bank, commitments from landowners along the route, a partnership with an international engineering firm, and Cianbro people on the ground in eastern Maine laying the foundations for the project. He’s working on the application process for the permits the project needs from the Land Use Regulation Commission and other agencies. He’s moving so fast that his plans haven’t even had time to generate much opposition from wilderness and conservation groups.

“You Can Get There from Here”:

Needless to say, an east-west highway will not happen overnight.  Just a single, complete route that runs through Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine would likely take a decade to complete and cost billions. All three routes shown in the map would likely take an entire generation.

Yet, we believe that we have to keep trying.  The added tourism and economic development is vital to sustaining our towns and villages into the future.  We may even have to go “back to the future” by making the east-west highway an old New England-style turnpike in order to pay for it (pdf).

[field name=Google-MyMap-East-West-Routes]

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Please add your thoughtful comment . . .

Godenich, thanks for stopping by and for the supportive comment–we hope you checked out our Lyndonville, Vermont town picture gallery 🙂

We also have a soft spot for rail travel though we’re not so sure they are economically competitive . . . but with gas prices going up anything could be possible (look for a future post on this topic). 

We definitely do need the jobs to keep and attract younger families to help reverse the tide of aging demographics.  Unfortunately, underpopulation is the current trajectory without economic development such as an east-west highway.

Godenich says:

I live in Lyndonville. I would love to see the northern east-west corridor completed and the north-south railway revamped for passenger travel.  That’s an economic stimulus!  I hope that when it is done, and I have no doubt about that,  it will be done tastefully and not become overpopulated up here. That would be sad, but with that said, I relish the idea of  1 hour treks to Burlington and a 2 hour drive to the shores of Maine and NH, plus the new businesses that will create new jobs in this beautiful area.