East-West Highway Report

by Pamela Prodan

The concept of building an East-West highway across Maine has been around since the 1930s or earlier. In its latest incarnation, the idea of a 4-lane limited-access highway with two branches to Coburn Gore and to Gilead is being heavily promoted by a Bangor-based group. Operating under a couple of names, "East-West Highway Association" and "Maine Citizens for Increased Jobs and Safety," the group's funding sources are not publicly available.

Some people's vision for the future of northern Maine.

The highway promoters believe it is needed for safe and efficient travel, economic development and to facilitate increased trade to and from Canada under NAFTA. They have held meetings around the region as far east as New Brunswick and they participated in the Eastern Regional Conference of the Council of State Governments in Burlington, Vermont in August. They plan another meeting on September 13 at the Cabot Inn in Lancaster, New Hampshire.

Organizations that have taken positions against such a highway include the Friends of the Boundary Mountains and the Maine Sporting Camp Association. Their concerns focus around the need for such a highway and the irreversible changes it would bring to the heart of Maine. Other groups are taking a wait and see attitude, until more specifics emerge such as whether the concept is a new 4-laner or an improved 2-laner and where it would be located.

The Maine Legislature directed the Maine Department of Transportation and State Planning Office to issue reports on the highway. Some are already out and the final report is due out on September 15, 1999. To receive all these reports, contact the State Planning Office at 207-287-3261 and ask to be put on the mailing list to receive them all. The reports will also be placed on the State's web site <www.state.me.us>. No public hearings are planned, although it is reasonable to expect several bills on the East-West Highway in the next legislative session.

Will MDOT adequately identify economic, environmental and community issues relative to a 4-lane highway? Potential environmental impacts include a long list: wetlands and habitat destruction; loss of biological diversity; polluted air; acid rain; global warming: urban sprawl; noise pollution; and destruction of remote qualities. All need to be addressed. But are there additional environmental impacts that we don't think of because they haven't been adequately researched? Scientists say yes.

According to researchers at North Carolina State University, little work has been done to date to investigate the actual impacts of transportation projects on wildlife and ecosystems. They have published a background paper to lay out environmental research needs in transportation, available on the internet at http://itre.ncsu.edu/cte/wildlife.html. They point out that habitat fragmentation and disruption from highway construction can impact the size of particular wildlife populations, with a secondary effect being an ecosystem of less biodiversity and thus lower value. The researchers also raise concerns about how transportation corridors are used by wildlife and whether plantings, medians, and shoulders have beneficial or adverse impacts on wildlife. They question the noise impacts on sensitive species and how to implement collision avoidance measures.

The scientists also say additional research is needed on the impact of transportation projects on the accumulation of contaminants in community and ecosystem food chains. Road sand is a physical stressor but chemical runoff has an impact too. Road runoff includes polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, nitrogen-containing organics and some metals. The researchers point out that there are presently no widely accepted criteria for evaluating the significance of roadside soil, air and vegetation contamination. Other concerns include impacts from stormwater management and whether mitigation solves or creates erosion problems for streams. Perhaps money should be spent on research so we better understand the impacts of highways before constructing more new ones.

A decentralized effort has sprung up to prepare to fight the highway. People are networking and sharing information across the state and the whole northern forest region. A web site has also been created where people can get information, exchange ideas and express opinions about the highway at <www.east-westhighway.com>. People are having meetings with and writing letters to the Maine congressional delegation. The state's reports are being scrutinized as they are released. At some point, a consensus is likely to emerge among opponents to the highway as to what further strategies as needed and whether a coalition or opposition group will be needed.

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