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Backers of New Maine Roadway Seek to Capitalize on Canal Expansion
06/04/2012   Reported By: Jay Field

One word keeps coming up, as supporters of an East-West highway in Maine make their case for the project: containers--massive cargo containers that transport goods all over the world in the bellies of large, ocean-going freighters. Last month, a container shipping service out of Portland shut down due to a lack of volume. But in the near future, container traffic to the East Coast of the United States is expected to increase with the completion of upgrades to two of the world's major canals. What's uncertain is whether Maine will be able to capitalize on the economic opportunity these changes will present.

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This story begins far away from Maine in the Central American nation of Panama. Since the 1930s, studies have recommended building a larger, third set of locks in the Panama Canal so the waterway could handle bigger freighters hauling more cargo.

It took a nationwide referendum in 2006 for the expansion project to finally get the green light. When it's completed, in 2014, the Panama Canal will be able to handle new kinds of ships called Ultra-Large Container Vessels--ULCVs for short.
But to continue on to the East Coast, these massive freighters will need to look for a port that, like the Port of Long Beach in California, has 50 feet of water or more.

"The Port of Eastport is the deepest natural seaport in the continental United States. We have 65-feet of water at our lowest running tide," says Chris Gardner, the port's executive director. Gardner says that presents Eastport with a unique opportunity.

"The shipping companies are going to start looking at where the next 20 years is going to come from," Gardner says. "So I think we're prime and ripe right now to position ourselves, that we can be the next focus for shipping."

For this to happen, Eastport would undoubtedly need to add to the $8 millon of recent upgrades at the port. But there's an even bigger obstacle that threatens to deny Maine a shot at becoming a big-time player in international trade.

Chris Gardner describes the problem this way: "The Port of Eastport is like having a shiny, brass hose nozzle, one of the nicest ones you've ever seen. But yet, we can't figure out how to get water out of it. That's because it has no hose."

Supporters of the East-West highway say the proposed 220-mile toll road, stretching from Calais to Coburn Gore, can be the hose Easport has been looking for. Peter Vigue is CEO of Cianbro, the contracting giant that would lead construction of the $2 billion, privately-funded expressway.

Vigue says building the road would allow all those shipping containers to reach the real East-West highway. "It's very easy to see: It's a visual thing. The East-West highway starts at Sherbrooke, Ouebec, and it runs to Montreal, through Toronto, Detroit, Chicago, and here we are in the Midwest."

Vigue's position is pretty simple: Unless Maine finally builds this long-debated connector through the rural lands below Aroostook County, the state will miss a once-in-a-lifetime shot at becoming a major player in the world of international trade.
But one opponent of the East-West highway says Vigue and other backers of the project are misleading the public.

"We have a way of moving goods efficiently and sustainably across Maine now," says Glen Brand, who runs the Maine chapter of the Sierra Club.

Brand says it makes no sense build a four-lane highway, and possibly harm exisiting waterways and water quality in the process, when Maine already has rail lines that could transport containers to Montreal and beyond.

"It makes a lot more sense to devote the limited tax dollars that we're, in our view, wasting on the East West highway study to look at the economic impacts of redeveloping the existing freightline," Brand says.

Currently, there's no rail service in and out of Eastport. So finding a way to get the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Lines into the port would be a top priority. Chris Gardner, the port director, has long advocated for such an upgrade. But in addition, Gardner says he'd also like to see the East-West highway get built.


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