The middle is better than the end of the line.
by Don Cayo
With my home and my wife and kids in the Maritimes and my extended family out West, I often rue the size of Ontario. It’s so darn big. And the time and money it takes to travel across it puts so much distance between here and there.
But my futile lament ignores the distance between the Maritimes and Ontario. It, too, is a long way. And it takes a lot longer to drive than you might guess when you look at the map.
There are two ways to get by road from here to there. The “good” way – and, believe me, the term is relative – is the all-Canadian route. From southern New Brunswick, where I live, you drive more than four hours north, mostly on the TransCanada Highway and mostly on stretches of road that might have looked good in the 1960s, when they were built. Then, just before the St. Lawrence River, you turn West onto a considerably better road. If you’re bound for southern Ontario, which most of us Maritimers all too often are, you angle south on still-good roads until you’re back down to about the same latitude where you started.
Or you can go as the crow flies, straight west through the “peninsula” of Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont that juts way up into Eastern Canada. But the roads. Oh, the roads! They make the worst our TransCanada system has to offer look like super-highways.
I’m just back from Bangor, Maine – an adventure trip I often seek reason to forgo if there’s any chance the weather will be bad. It’s a 3 _-hour drive, but it ought to be well under three. It starts with an hour and a bit of easy driving West to the border at St. Stephen-Calais, then a tortuous two-plus hours in every direction except straight ahead on the much-improved, but still appallingly bad, highway that Mainers, for reasons that can only be imagined, call “The Airline”. Perhaps it’s a reference to the frequent air space between the seat of your pants and the seat of your car on the bumps. Invariably you’re slowed to a crawl behind one of a steady stream of big trucks that can scarcely make the steep grades.
And west from Bangor, save for a short stretch of the I-95 highway, it’s as bad a drive – up hill and down dale, snaking around every obstacle and smack though the middle of every small town – until you turn north into Quebec or hit the Canadian border somewhere near Toronto. A good, straight road would save an astonishing 240 kilometres of driving from my home to Toronto. And, if it could be safely navigated at reasonable speed, it would save a lot more time than that distance implies.
Why does this matter?
To a region like ours with too small a population to amount to much of a local market for our goods, the roads in New England are one of the most serious obstacles to our growth. Bangor is within a mere 500 miles of a nearly a third of the people and a third of the wealth in Canada and the U.S. And southern New Brunswick, where I live, is less than half that distance from Bangor, even though it’s so hard to get to from here.
So I was greatly encouraged by the theme of my visit last week – a conclave of Canadians and Americans who are finally getting serious about building an East-West highway across our territory and theirs to link the East Coast to the Centre. It’s as much a priority for northern and central Maine and New Hampshire as it is for us. They’ve long been considered “the end of the line.” They look forward to being in the middle.
We in the Maritimes may be stuck well out into the Atlantic Ocean, but the concept of being in the middle potentially applies to us, too. If you consider our ports – especially the Port of Halifax, which seems destined for dramatic growth – we are smack-dab between the rest of you in Canada and the rest of the world.
New Brunswick and Nova Scotia are, at long last, getting their acts together, focusing on their major highways to get them up to standard. And in Maine and New Hampshire, and encouraging number of political heavyweights – state and federal senators, congressmen and state representatives – are clambering on board. They are looking at other international transportation corridors – like the very successful one from Winnipeg due south to Mexico – and toting up the huge value of economic spin-offs that result. It’s starting to look as if a replacement for The Airline might actually fly.
I hope so.
A couple of variations of an old joke are told in virtually every community in Eastern Canada and the northeastern U.S. “If I wanted to go there,” say some, “I wouldn’t start from here.” Others put it even more bluntly: “You can’t get there from here.”
All too often, it’s all too true. Imagine the possibilities if that were no longer so.