Do We Need Another Highway?

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“If you build it, they will come.”

Constructing a baseball field for the use of ghosts involves a giant leap of faith. But extending an interstate highway further into the hinterlands requires something more like denial.

I’m writing this week about the proposed extension of Interstate 395 here in the Greater Bangor region. The project has been on the drawing board for 16 years, and has taken on seeming unstoppable momentum. It calls for approximately six miles of new four-lane divided highway between the present end of I-395 in Brewer to join with Route 9 in Eddington.

The project carries an estimated price tag of $61 million. Eight homes will be displaced, and another 54 properties in Brewer, Holden and Eddington will be affected. The rationale for the road, according to the Bangor Daily News, is to “ease heavy truck traffic and improve safety on nearby routes 46 and 1A, while also creating a more direct link from Canada to the U.S. Highway system.” The route is slated for completion in 2025.

The only problem with this logic is that it won’t happen. No road yet built has ever, in the long term, eased traffic. If you build it, they will come.

This may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s true. “For decades, traffic engineers have observed the capacity of more highways to simply breed more traffic,” wrote Jane Holtz Kay in her 1997 book Asphalt Nation. More roads encourage more people to drive, at a rate faster than new roads can be constructed. You can’t build your way out of traffic congestion.

Has Interstate 395, for example, eased traffic on the Brewer strip? Getting from Bangor to Bar Harbor on a summer day is still an automotive gauntlet. Widening the road in places has not alleviated the congestion. It has encouraged people to drive faster, making the road notorious for periodic horrific accidents. And the bypassed strip seems busier than ever.

Writing for the energy and environmental website Vox, Joseph Stromberg succinctly summarizes the problem: drivers don’t pay for the roads. More than half of all road costs come out of general taxes. New road construction is a massive government subsidy for the owners of cars and trucks. People (and companies) choose to drive because their government encourages them to.

Back in my youth, I had a job for the Ellsworth American, which at that time printed many of the small weekly newspapers in eastern and northern Maine. One of my duties was to drive up to Dexter twice a week – first to pick up the “flats” that would be photographed and turned into plates for the American’s then state-of-the-art offset press system, then, two days later, to deliver the printed papers. This was before Interstate 395 was built. I used to make a game of driving through Brewer and Bangor, hitting as many green lights as possible. Eleven traffic lights interrupted the route between the beginning of the Brewer strip and the end of Outer Broadway on the far side of Bangor. There are more lights today, and bypassing the strip via the interstate does not enable you to avoid all of them.

One might argue that the Brewer strip would be even more crowded today had the bridge and the interstate never been built. But that is at least debatable. Those same public dollars could have been invested in a light-rail system linking Bangor and Bar Harbor, for example, or better bus service, or both. Sinking money into roads delays the day when we can begin to move away from the dominance of cars and trucks toward a more integrated and diversified transportation system.

The most efficient way to move freight is by intermodal transport, in which the same container fits on a ship, a train, and a truck. Rail remains the most efficient way to move freight, especially heavy cargoes, over long distances. The Maine Department of Transportation estimates that one freight train can do the work of 280 trucks.

We don’t have an insufficiency of road capacity; we have an overabundance of vehicles. Doesn’t it make sense to pursue policies that will reduce the number of cars and trucks on our roads, rather than encourage more of them? A generation from now, we can either have more highways and more trucks, or the beginnings of a more efficient and cost-effective transportation system.

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Next Wednesday, April 27, the Bangor City Council will discuss the budget for the Community Connector bus system and the extension of bus hours later into the evening. The meeting takes place at 5:15 on the third floor of City Hall, and is open to the public.

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