Saturday, July 18, 2009

Road to Nowhere

In March of this year the state decided to put money into a highway around Caribou, ME. If you're thinking that a $20 million road bypassing a town of 8,000 sounds pretty absurd, then a little history is in order. Apparently, the original intent of the federal interstate highway system was to build I-95 all the way to the very top of Maine, but for whatever reason, it stopped in Houlton, about 100 miles short. Needless to say, this has stuck in the craw of the folks of Aroostook County for generations. Route 1 goes that far, but they believe that a limited-access, divided highway will immensely increase the speed at which the potatoes and broccoli of Aroostook can get to market, not to mention the tourist dollars it will bring from the south and the general improvement in a very poor part of the state. So this bypass, and one for Presque Isle next year, seems to be a start at completing the great promises of the 1940s.

Just to show what the rest of the world thinks of northern Maine, the Boston Globe ran a story about this today, four months later.

The Mainers in the south are not happy with spending precious dollars in the north, even if the prospect of replenishing the highway fund with federal stimulus money looks good. After all, Aroostook, that giant county shaped like a handgun pointing west, the largest US county east of the Mississippi, one that defines all of Maine's northern border, most of its eastern, and part of its western as well, has a population of 71,000 people (and declining), which means an average of just over 10 people per square mile. That's not a lot of votes. No wonder a local paper somewhere rather south of Houlton called the project "the road to nowhere."

To me a road to nowhere is a contradiction in terms. Let nowhere be nowhere, please don't disturb it. But the people of Aroostook take it personally, not surprisingly: "Kittery and Kennebunk and Portland get 6 lanes of the Turnpike, and we get none?" I think they are blaming the wrong thing. Blame the culture that seduces their children away, blame the world-wide, restless surge of capital for the declining value of their potatoes and their land, blame the long winters for the lack of tourists and second homes. Surely there are better ways for the state to help the people of Aroostook than building more monuments to pollution and fossil fuels and rest-stops featuring fast food.

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