Media Archive

Maine may be central to 'Atlantica'

Article from Bangor Daily News, Saturday, January 21, 2006

By Tom Groening

In tooting its horn to get businesses to relocate there, the city of Buffalo, N.Y., touts its proximity to the port of Halifax, Nova Scotia.


Looking at a map may only deepen this conundrum.

But economic development and transportation planners say understanding why the western New York city is talking about a Canadian Maritime port is actually a key for Maine's future.

Early next month, the state Department of Transportation is expected to award a $1 million-plus contract to a planning firm to undertake a comprehensive study of east-west transportation needs and their impact on the regional economy

The study, funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation, will look beyond Maine and take in the northern portions of New Hampshire, Vermont and New York, as well as the provinces of Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec and eastern Ontario.

Policymakers in the "Atlantica" area must see themselves as part of a newly defined economic - not just political - region, argue planners such as Tim Woodcock, a founder of the East-West Highway Association, a group promoting the region and urging governments to invest in transportation improvements.

The corridor to be studied, between Halifax and Buffalo, N.Y.-Hamilton, Ontario, has been called Atlantica; another name sometimes used is the International North East Economic Region.

Whatever the name, Woodcock and Sandy Blitz, executive director of the East-West Highway Association, say Maine needs to get on board.

"We are a geographic region, whether we know it or not," Woodcock said. "Geography is going to assert itself as a significant economic determinant."

Others, such as the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, or AIMS, a Canadian nonprofit think tank based in Halifax, already know the importance of the concept. The study, to be titled "CanAm Connections: Integrating the Economy and Transportation," could prove to be the "blueprint for Atlantica," the AIMS Web site notes.

Blitz hopes the study's recommendations can be used to influence state, provincial and federal officials in both the U.S. and Canada to see the mutual benefits of creating safe and efficient links from Halifax to Buffalo and beyond.

A few years ago, transportation officials and business leaders in Maine were lamenting the poor east-west highway connections through northern New England. While those shortcomings remain, Woodcock and others say, the focus now is on all modes of transportation: ship, rail, air and road.

Maine is at the terminus of most U.S. transportation corridors, which limits economic potential.

Woodcock said a look at highway maps makes northern New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine look like "a series of peninsulas."

A business that wants to ship its product to more populous markets must pay a premium because trucks are often coming to Maine empty.

Woodcock said former state Transportation Commissioner John Melrose once told him that at any given moment as many as 40 percent of trucks on Maine roads are empty.

Driving Woodcock, Blitz and others in their enthusiasm and urgency on east-west corridor improvements is the exponential growth in trade with China - the People's Republic, not China, Maine.

As West Coast ports such as Los Angeles and Vancouver, British Columbia, reach capacity, the Northeast is poised to emerge as a viable alternative for importing and exporting, these planners believe.

By using the Suez Canal in Egypt, shipping to and from Asia is increasingly focused on the East Coast. The "Suez Express" option, as it is being called, means Halifax is only 300 miles farther from Asia than West Coast ports. Those extra 300 miles become negligible when ships can be unloaded and containers sent on their way quicker in Halifax than in overloaded West Coast ports.

And unlike the ports in New York and other East Coast cities, the port in Halifax has depths of 40 to 45 feet, required for the increasingly large ships being used in Asian trade.

Rail lines from Halifax are also ready, able to handle "double-stacked" containers, Woodcock said. The only problem is that those rail lines detour around Maine from Nova Scotia to Montreal, a major sorting terminus for businesses to reach the populous Midwest.

"It is a continental switching point," he said of Montreal, a city of 3.5 million on the St. Lawrence Seaway which connects trade to Detroit. "That's why Montreal is such an objective."

But if improvements are made, will Maine become merely a pass-through on a busy shipping corridor, or can the state benefit?

The transportation and resultant economic choice a region like Maine has to make, Woodcock argues, is to be "on the way from point A to point B," or to be on the way to nowhere.

"Goods and people like to move in a straight line," he said. Businesses are more likely to locate on that line.

He cites the experience of Roxanne Quimby, whose Burt's Bees business - with annual sales of $170 million - left Guilford, Maine, for Raleigh, N.C., in part because of transportation problems. Raleigh is at the intersection of Southern east-west and north-south interstate highways, Quimby has noted. When ordering a pallet of glass jars in Guilford, she often would pay more for shipping than for the jars.

Woodcock cites another business that manufactures gloves in Presque Isle that are sold in the Midwest. The product must be trucked south to Boston before drivers can get on I-90, a safe and efficient link west.

And the trump card, Woodcock believes, in the argument for changing Maine and northern New England's economic orientation from north-south to east-west, is the status quo.

He can cite a map that highlights counties across the region that are in economic distress. Other than areas around Burlington, Vt., and Rochester, N.Y., most of the upstate portions of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and New York suffer from high unemployment and low wages.

"We're all in the same boat economically, and one of the reasons is we're not connected to each other," he said.

Unlike previous efforts to examine the problem, the study is supposed to make pragmatic links between transportation needs and the economy.

"This is as much an economic study as a transportation study," said DOT spokesman Herb Thompson. He said it would identify "what the economic drivers are. It's more than just engineering."

The study is funded by $1 million from the federal Borders and Corridors Program, from a bill whose primary sponsor was U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. A 20 percent match is also required from nonfederal sources.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta ordered the study after requests by congressional delegations from northern New England.

Work is expected to begin on the study this spring.

"Content above originated in the edition noted as a copyrighted article and is posted here with permission of the Bangor Daily News."

NOTE - This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of the TRC Alliance Team.