From Point A to Point B and in between
By David Bernhardt, P.E., MaineDOT Commissioner
The traditional New Englander phrase – “you can’t get there from here” – has rung a bit too true when looking at the proposed East-West Highway. The Maine Legislature tasked MaineDOT with studying the financial feasibility of the proposed East-West Highway. LD 1671: An Act To Provide Funding to the Department of Transportation for a Feasibility Study of an East-west Highway, as enacted (Resolve 2011, Chapter 147), requires MaineDOT to complete an investment-grade traffic and revenue analysis to assess the feasibility of a privately funded, privately operated and publicly accessible east-west highway, and to report back the findings to the Joint Standing Committee on Transportation by January 15, 2013. Essentially, that means it is our job to fairly and objectively answer the question – “Is this highway financially feasible as a private toll highway?”
Both Governor LePage and the legislature wanted us to do this. Most of the studies we conduct do not have specific legislative direction, and it is not legally necessary, but we were happy to have it, given the magnitude and public interest in this project.
From the perspective of a transportation professional, studying whether a project is financially feasible first makes sense. We have seen the alternative in Wiscasset. We spent years considering multiple routes, causing immeasurable anxiety for communities and property owners. In the end, lack of funding doomed the project. Had the lack of funding been known from the beginning of the process, much time, energy, worry and taxpayer dollars would have been saved.
As an investment-grade traffic and revenue analysis, this study will not determine precisely where the road would be or what its design will be. Although it is understandable why people want to know all that now, those are questions for much later, and are more appropriately asked of the potential developer. Many are uncomfortable with the concept of a private road. Doing things differently always raises questions, but I can tell you that we need to try new approaches to transportation finance. Traditional state and federal funding alone simply will not get the job done. We need to be open to other possibilities.
To complete this study, we obviously need to know what businesses and people would likely use it, and what they would be willing to pay. For us to know who to ask these questions, we obviously need to know the connections between the new road and existing public transportation infrastructure in Maine and in Canada. As we proceeded, we learned that we need better information about these connections. Without it, the study results would not be useful.
The study is essentially on hold until more reliable information regarding the connection is provided. We will continue with the study once these connections are more fully determined. That could be months or longer. In the meantime, we know debate among policymakers will continue, and we stand willing to do whatever job is asked of us.