April 07, 2020

More pavement won’t build better Maine

The quest to extend Interstate 95 through northern Aroostook County and to build a limited-access, east-west highway across Maine reminds me of the DINKs (Double Income, No Kids couples) who have been moving into my home area of central Massachusetts during the past several years and constructing hundreds of palatial, half-million dollar, neo-colonial homes in the middle of the woods, complete with circular driveways, palladium windows and private tennis courts.

The casual observer thinks “wow.” But when one contemplates the sheer number of these mini-mansions being built, one realizes it’s all a matter of keeping up appearances – “you have your big house, so we gotta have our big house.”

You have your big roads, so we gotta have our big roads. So goes the thinking in much of rural Maine. I’m not convinced the need is there.

I made my first trip to far northern Maine this fall. The beauty of the area is stunning. Certainly there is a need for tourism development and given the shaky condition of Maine agriculture, there is a need for economic development as well.

But I noticed something on my trip: the wide, beautifully-constructed Route 1 between Van Buren and Caribou had almost no traffic on it. I said to the people with me, “What on earth are they thinking when they say they need a new road to replace this?”

My question stands. There is a need to improve the highway in the far northern end of the county, and such a need also exists in some areas south of Presque Isle. One can also see the sense in building bypasses around the larger communities. But extending I-95 all the way to the St. John Valley would be a colossal waste of money.

I would make this same contention with regard to the proposed east-west highway. Much of the Airline (Route 9) has been markedly improved during the past 20 years. Similar work could be done, and to an extent has been done, on Route 2 west of Newport. But I am not convinced that there is sufficient commercial or private traffic to warrant construction of a limited-access highway across Maine.

Moreover, whether such a highway would extend to New Hampshire, Coburn Gore or Jackman, there would be nothing comparable to it on the other side of the border. Route 10, Quebec’s limited access highway to Montreal, ends at Sherbrooke.

It’s nice to think that big roads are going to be the economic savior of inland Maine. The question of whether this is true is only one of the hard questions that need to be asked.

The Rev. Douglas Drown lives in Bingham.

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