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It’s time to think beyond the boondoggle that is the Gorham Connector

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It’s time to think beyond the boondoggle that is the Gorham Connector

Feb 20, 2024 | 5:45 am ET
By Em Burnett
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It’s time to think beyond the boondoggle that is the Gorham Connector
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The start and end points of the proposed Gorham Connector. (via Maine Turnpike Authority)

The Maine Turnpike Authority is moving ahead with the long-planned construction of a slice of highway connecting Gorham to I-95. The five-mile connector is estimated to cost more than $240 million— amounting to roughly $48 million for each mile of pavement. It’s a project whose sheer momentum seems to be just about the only reason for why it’s happening, even while other states are canceling their plans for highway widening. 

Let’s start with the first and most prominent explanation for why the Maine Turnpike Authority is ostensibly building this boondoggle: traffic. The logic goes that if you build more lanes, traffic will decrease. Except we have over 80 years of evidence and plenty of academic studies that show the opposite happens: build a highway and more people will want to drive on it, live near it, and use it. The phenomenon is called induced demand: make a nicer, bigger thing and more people will adapt and flock to that nicer, bigger thing. Expand a highway to increase 10% of the road’s capacity and you’ll get 10% more people to use that highway who otherwise would have taken the other route to town or wouldn’t have driven that way at all. 

The idea of creating a highway to connect western suburbs like Gorham with Portland has been around for decades. In 2012, the Maine Turnpike commissioned a study on the feasibility of a connector highway between Gorham and the turnpike. The results of the study found that a connector highway alone will not reduce traffic and that its intended traffic reduction strategies would only be met when paired with both a significant increase in public transit ridership, routes and services and with zoning reforms at the local level to discourage the growth of single family homes. None of those other strategies have been met, and neither do they have the backing, support, and funding from the state government like the Gorham Connector. 

Although our state’s political leaders like Governor Janet Mills tout a commitment to fighting climate change and building more sustainable infrastructure, the state’s climate action plan has a significant blind spot when it comes to transportation. The transportation policies in the Climate Action Plan rely almost entirely on expanding car-centric infrastructure and transitioning to electric vehicles. The words “public transportation” are rarely mentioned in the 124-report and mostly with the vague goal to “identify revenue sources” for such an investment despite that about half of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation, the bulk of which are cars.

Part of the reason why state leaders continue to drive us down this failed route is that highways are a cash cow. Politicians are generally reluctant to raise taxes or cut services, unless it’s for poor or marginalized people. But highways theoretically pay for themselves through tolls. Every news story and public communication about the Gorham Connector makes sure to note that fact. However, that calculation ignores other costs: the cost of expanded sprawl, greater air and noise pollution, the loss of trees and wildlife, and the effect it has on the existing rural way of life. 

The Gorham Connector is not unlike the CMP corridor in exposing how the momentum of these colossal projects usually matters more than the concerns of residents. Despite the voters of Maine solidly rejecting the CMP corridor, it appears that the corridor is getting built anyway. Utility corporations and our ruling class decide whether we get a corridor or a highway and, if pesky voters get in the way, the sheer scale of the project will soon be made unstoppable, regardless of public opinion. Now that the Gorham Connector is closer to becoming a reality, more residents are actually paying attention to the process and speaking out against it. But no one will be voting on whether to ultimately build the highway, and public engagement and listening sessions about the construction of the project have largely already happened. 

Los Angeles canceled a planned highway project last year when they axed the Route 710 expansion after investing $60 million in the project. Colorado similarly canceled a highway expansion project after they ran out of money. It’s time for Maine to follow suit.