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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Maine Drives for Expansion

Air Date: Week of

Sprawl and traffic congestion are high on the public agenda, even in the bucolic state of Maine where voters, in the past, have rejected plans to widen the Maine Turnpike. But as traffic jams grow worse each summer, some say the state should widen the turnpike from four lanes to six. The turnpike authority is expected to make an announcement about this plan in the near future. Still, many in Maine are against more lanes for the toll expressway and argue that before putting down more pavement, the state should try some transportation alternatives; like bringing back the passenger rail service to Boston which was cut off thirty years ago. John Rudolph has our report.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Sprawl and traffic congestion are 2 hallmarks of the automobile culture, and the sparsely-populated state of Maine is not exempt. Every summer around the city of Portland, the Maine Turnpike slows to a crawl on Friday nights and Sunday afternoons, as tourists and locals alike struggle to make their ways up and down the coast. Some folks say they have the answer: widen the Turnpike from 4 lanes to 6. The Turnpike Authority is expected to make an announcement about this plan in the near future, but many in Maine are against more toll expressway. They argue that before putting down more pavement, the state should try some transportation alternatives, like bringing back the passenger rail service to Boston, which was cut off 30 years ago. John Rudolph has our report.

(Traffic sounds)

RUDOLPH: Most of the time when I drive on the Maine Turnpike, I'm able to move along at a steady 65 miles an hour. But one time during the summer I got snagged. I was headed for a concert in Old Orchard Beach, a popular seaside resort near Portland, when bang, I ran into a huge, snarly traffic jam. For hours we crept along. Walking would have been faster. I thought of the old joke about the Maine farmer who tells the traveling salesman, "You can't get there from here." Well, I did get there, eventually, just in time to hear the last part of the concert. I also got some insight into why so many Mainers feel passionately about the Turnpike's future. Everyone agrees something needs to be done to alleviate the huge traffic jams on summer weekends, when tourists, commuters, and truckers all want to use the turnpike at the same time. But so far there's no agreement on the solution. One possible approach is to widen the Turnpike. The leading advocate of this idea is State Senator Jeff Butland.

(Door opens; a motor turns over)

RUDOLPH: Senator Butland comes from the town of Cumberland, a suburb of Portland. During most of the year he works as a manager at L.L. Bean. But on days when the legislature is in session, Senator Butland, a Republican ex-Marine and father of 3, gets in his pickup truck and heads north to the state capitol of Augusta. It's an easy, traffic-free drive. Many of Senator Butland's constituents have a very different commuting experience. Their jobs are in the south, in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Mr. Butland says he's heard many complaints about congestion on the southern portion of the Turnpike. The 4-lane highway really hasn't changed much since it was built 50 years ago.

BUTLAND: There's a lot of little stories that were woven together. People saying why don't we widen the Turnpike? I work in New Hampshire and travel it every day. I'm a salesman, I travel it 3 or 4 times a week. And just a real burden of anecdotal information that said we've got a safety issue here, we've got an economic issue in that it's the main economic artery and it's clogged, and it needed to be addressed.

RUDOLPH: Over the years there have been a number of efforts to widen the Maine Turnpike. But in 1991 Maine voters said no. They overwhelmingly approved a referendum blocking widening until alternatives could first be explored. The Sensible Transportation Act was a victory for environmentalists. They had warned that a wider turnpike would actually bring more cars into the state. Traffic jams would continue, and air pollution would get worse. They also argued that a wider road would hasten Maine's transformation from a rural enclave into a sprawling suburban region. One alternative that's already made a lot of progress is an effort to restore passenger rail service between Portland and Boston. Maine is just one of 3 states in the continental US that aren't served by Amtrak. The state has a $38 million Federal grant to bring the train back, but Senator Butland says spending money on trains is a waste.

BUTLAND: I think we need to improve the infrastructure that we have before we go off willy nilly with projects like the restoration of railroad from Portland and Boston.

(Echoes, many voices and footfalls)

RUDOLPH: At the state capitol on a recent afternoon, Senator Butland stopped to chat with Robert Peacock. Mr. Peacock owns a company that distributes fresh Maine salmon around the country. He says congestion on the Turnpike has hurt his business. Truckloads of fresh fish have been delayed getting to the airport in Boston.

PEACOCK: Well, if your truck is late getting there, then they can't consolidate the loads. Then the stuff doesn't go on the airplane, and you've added another day or 2 to your fish. Now the fish gets to Scottsdale, Arizona, 2 days late, and I guarantee you they're not happy and the quality has gone to hell. So it really makes a big difference on the quality of the fish. And that's the key issue. What we're selling in Maine is life is better in Maine, the fish is better in Maine, everything's better in Maine. And if you don't have the quality, you've had it. That's a direct line back to the Turnpike in the summer time.

RUDOLPH: Robert Peacock supports Senator Butland's efforts to add an extra lane in each direction to the Maine Turnpike, a project that will cost $100 million. But Mr. Peacock also acknowledges that if there was a train and if enough people used it instead of driving their own cars, there might be more room on the road for his trucks. He also wishes he didn't always have to truck his fish to Boston, that there was some quicker way to ship it from Maine. Maybe a fast train or air cargo service. This idea of using a variety of transportation methods is called multli-modalism. But in Maine, multi-modalism is having a hard time taking hold.

(Traffic sounds; horns)

RUDOLPH: When Wayne Davis travels to Boston from his home in Portland, he takes the bus.

VOICE: Good afternoon, welcome aboard. Local 425, scheduled time arrival in Boston at 4:45 at Logan Airport... We should be on time today... unless we get tied up in traffic in Boston.

RUDOLPH: Mr. Davis is the president and founder of Train Riders Northeast, a group that's been working for 9 years to bring passenger rail service back to Maine. It's been 31 years since passenger trains ran between Portland and Boston. Wayne Davis, a retired bank executive, takes the bus because he believes deeply in public transportation. But while the bus does the job of getting him where he wants to go, he'd much rather be on a train. Mr. Davis's group has a good news/bad news story to tell. They've convinced the state and Federal governments to appropriate funds for the train, but they still can't get the train started. Service was supposed to begin in 1993, but it's been held up by one dispute after the next. The latest is between Amtrak and the freight railroad that owns the tracks. Mr. Davis believes eventually the trains will roll. In the meantime, he worries that Maine's love affair with the automobile may change the state forever.

DAVIS: If we want to widen the roads now, we're going to have to take what's left of historic trees, and we've already lost millions of our elms to disease, the ones that we have left line our roads. If they're going to widen them, the trees have to go, and we're going to look like Texas. We're going to be going through wetlands, demolishing historic buildings as we go. It would be criminal. So that's what makes me think that there would be much more pain and discomfort for us here in Maine if we don't make this first faltering step to bring Amtrak to Portland, Maine, as a beginning.

RUDOLPH: Mr. Davis envisions a multi-modal transportation system that includes cars, buses, trains, and high-speed ferries all linked together. It's a vision shared by a number of people around the state. But the multi-modal concept is often forgotten when Mainers start arguing over the Turnpike and Amtrak. Charlie Colgan is an economist at the University of Southern Maine who has worked as a consultant to the Maine Turnpike Authority.

COLGAN: The question is not so much one of economics and efficiency and equity and all the things that I deal with, but it's become more one of theology. That there are certain people who believe that the automobile ought to be tamed, and that the way to do it is to simply stop making the investments in the system. And there are others who believe that the automobile is, no matter how we deal with it, is essential to our lifeline. The Turnpike is the major road in and out of the state, and we ought to build it to whatever capacity is needed to support the economy.

(Traffic sounds)

RUDOLPH: It's not as if people in the state aren't trying to resolve these competing ideas. Rather than simply building more roads or just throwing money at public transportation projects, Maine is taking the time to think these issues through, and to grapple with the issue of growth, which is at the heart of the debate. But while the debate continues, all of us who drive through southern Maine on the Turnpike will have to cope as best we can. For Living on Earth, this is John Rudolph in Portland, Maine.



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