Katherine Q. Seelye on Maine’s Proposed East-West Toll Road

by Reihan Salam

In 2008, Maine had the 36th highest median household income among U.S. states at $46,581 as compared to $70,545 for Maryland, the highest, and Mississippi, the lowest, at $37,790. Note, however, that cost of living varies considerably across U.S. states. Missisippians have low incomes, but Mississippi also has a low cost of living. Using the ACCRA cost of living index, it turns out that Maine has the lowest adjusted median household income, as the state has a cost of living that is substantially higher-than-average. To be sure, this doesn’t take account of the fact that much of Maine is sublimely beautiful, which helps explain why many people who might earn higher adjusted incomes elsewhere choose to live there. 

This occurred to me as I read Katherine Q. Seelye’s article on resistance to the construction of a new east-west toll road in Maine designed to facilitate the flow of commerce from Eastport to the rest of the northeastern United States: 

Opponents say a major thoroughfare slicing through the state would destroy the very qualities of peacefulness, natural beauty and remoteness that make this region desirable in the first place.

“It would just completely change ‘the way life should be,’ ” said Chris Buchanan, referring to the state’s unofficial slogan. Ms. Buchanan is the statewide coordinator for Stop the Corridor, a coalition opposing the highway.

“Maine is a rural state,” she said, “and this is a businessman who is trying to make it the Northeast trade gateway.”

Yet one of the reasons this proposal is considered viable is that it will require virtually no public funds. Moreover, the project won’t be able to rely on eminent domain, so the developers will have to buy land from people who are willing to sell. This makes it a much easier sell than a publicly-financed road.

Opponents fear the potential environmental consequences, and many believe that the spillover economic benefits will be marginal at best. It seems at least somewhat likely, however, that the project will spark growth in and around Eastport. The central issue is that though Eastport is a very deep port, which thus doesn’t require any dredging to handle the new class of Panamax container ships, it is lightly utilized because it is not well-integrated into the North American road network. This proposed toll road has the potential to change that. Improving connectivity might also help reduce the cost of living, at least at the margin. 

Essentially, Maine residents are debating whether or not economic growth should take precedence over preserving Maine’s relative isolation, which is one of the qualities that has attracted people to Maine for much of its history. My sense is that the valence of this discussion would be very different if the United States weren’t a transfer union, in which more affluent regions make transfers to less affluent regions. A sovereign Maine republic might find resistance to economic development somewhat more costly, or it might forthrightly embrace its relative poverty without making any claims on its neighbors.