by Jim Dumville


A proposed east-west toll highway designed to carry commercial traffic across northern Maine between St. Stephen and the Sherbrooke area of Quebec could have a direct economic impact on the Upper St. John River Valley.

Understanding the extent of the billion-dollar project’s impact will require more details, say two local men charged with bringing economic development to the Carleton and York County regions.

Enterprise Carleton general manager Gary Melanson and Woodstock economic development officer Gordon Roach joined some of Atlantic Canada’s major business leaders in Saint John Friday morning to hear Maine entrepreneur Peter Vigue outline his proposal for the East-West Transportation, Utility and Communications Corridor. While much of Atlantic Canada’s manufacturing and transportation sectors view the shortcut to Ontario and western markets with extreme optimism, Melanson and Roach held a more cautious viewpoint as they left the breakfast meeting at the Delta in Saint John.

The proposed 260-kilometre, privately-financed toll highway could re-route most commercial traffic away from the newly opened four-lane Trans Canada Highway through western New Brunswick. While York and Carleton County shippers should have easy access to the proposed toll highway as it crosses the state just south of Bangor, Melanson wanted details about who will be using the route and what services would be provided along its path.

“One positive aspect (of the proposal) is we have a connection by going down the I-95,” said Melanson.

During a question and answer period following Vigue’s presentation, Melanson asked if the proposed route would carry all traffic, including tourist traffic. He also questioned whether opportunities would exist for groups like Tourism New Brunswick to promote the Upper St. John River Valley region. Vigue responded by noting the issue of tourist traffic had not yet been addressed. However, he added, services would have to be available along the route, noting the safety issue of providing service for breakdowns and other mishaps.

Will serving as Atlantic Canada’s starting point for the new toll highway make the St. Stephen-Calais area an easier sell for economic development in comparison to the Woodstock-Houlton area? While Roach noted that’s possible, he pointed out many factors play into business decisions involving location. Like Melanson, he believes more details about the proposed east-west connector highway will be needed before a true picture of Upper Valley impact is clear. Roach also noted that over the past decade and a half he has heard a number of proposals for an east-west corridor through Maine.

In his presentation in Saint John, Vigue expressed a strong belief his vision will become a reality. The president and CEO of Ciambro Corporation of Pittsfield, Maine – a major player in the heavy construction industry – said the early groundwork of the massive project is underway. He laid out a timetable, which includes traffic studies, engineering and design, and construction, with 2014 targeted as the completion date.

Vigue noted the engineering firm The Louis Berger Group – an industry leader which has designed and built major highway infrastructure, including the construction of new highways in Afghanistan – are partners in the East-West Corridor project.

The Atlantic Provinces Chamber of Commerce, the Atlantica Council – a group of business owners championing open trading between Atlantic Canada and the eastern American states – and Enterprise Saint John invited Vigue to share his highway dream with a receptive audience. As he laid out his plan, Vigue said the new highway is designed to address a history of economic challenges faced by northern Maine and Canada‘s Atlantic Provinces. He pointed out all major highways in Maine run north and south. As a result, northern Maine continues to struggle economically.

Maine traffic always heads south,” Vigue said. “People think we’re isolated… and backwater.”

The Maine entrepreneur said the East-West Corridor provides his state and Atlantic Canada with several opportunities. In addition to providing a faster, less-expensive route for truck traffic, he said, the corridor also opens a path for utility and communication transmissions.

Vigue added one of the vital components of his plan is the creation of a “border crossing demonstration project,” which calls for application of existing technology to improve the flow of goods through the Canada-U.S. border. Using Interpol as an example, he noted how the sharing of information can eliminate security concerns at the border.

“The frustrating thing is the technology exists,” Vigue said. “It’s about application of the technology.”

Vigue also stressed the challenges which await completion of the east-west highway. Making the privately financed corridor a reality, he explained, will require the involvement of several stakeholders. It will also require accurate traffic counts and trends. He told the business audience the project will need help on the Canadian side of the border to build the right “interconnect infrastructure.”

While details of the highway’s operation – including toll prices and overall use – remain to be worked out, Vigue outlined design elements of the billion-dollar project.

He said the private toll highway – built to standards used by the New Brunswick Department of Transportation – will avoid communities and offer unlimited weight restrictions, allowing for use of tandem trailers.

Vigue explained the highway’s 2,000-foot right of way will utilize current rights of way along existing woods roads through Maine. He noted one-third of the proposed highway’s distance is surveyed and landowners are already on board.

“This is not simply a concept anymore,” he said.

Some members of the audience expressed surprise the initial plan calls for a two-lane highway.

“We don’t have traffic counts yet,” explained Vigue. “It boils down to economics.”

If traffic counts suggest it, he noted, the highway project can be easily expanded to four or more lanes.

Trucking company officials emphasized the importance of the highway being a financially viable option for the shippers and carriers.

“The roadway has to be economically feasible to both us and you,” noted one transportation company official.

Vigue agreed, pointing out oil prices are projected to reach $200 per barrel and beyond. With transportation experts estimating trucking companies’ current costs run at approximately $2 per mile, he noted, cutting approximately 150 miles off the trip between Atlantic Canada and Quebec would create substantial savings.

The East-West Corridor already has the qualified support of the Atlantic Canada Trucking Association.

“This proposed road, should it come to reality, would be an incredible boost to the region’s economy,” said Peter Nelson, APTA executive director. “It would allow for shortened transit times for trucks between our region and Central Canada.”

But Nelson cautioned the region already suffers from heavy tolls.

“A new toll highway running to the region should be offset by either the reduction or elimination of existing tolls in Atlantic Canada – be it at Marine Atlantic, Cobequid Pass, Confederation Bridge, Bay Ferries or the municipal toll bridges in Halifax and Saint John.”