Sunday’s Maine Sunday Telegram had an interesting article by Colin Woodard on the proposed East-West Highway across north central Maine, providing a direct link from southwestern New Brunswick to southern Quebec. Interesting in that the article highlighted a common theme embedded in all our debates about economic development and politics–either/or thinking, sometimes called binary thinking. It’s thinking that only allows for two, rather than multiple possibilities.
In this case, Peter Vigue, chief executive for Cianbro, one of Maine’s premiere construction firms, is pitching the idea that Maine (north of Waterville, basically) has a choice–build a $2 billion, 220-mile closed-access toll highway sweeping through the forests of rural Washington, Penobscot, Piscataquis, Somerset and northern Franklin counties, or forever risk remaining an economic backwater. That’s an oversimplification, but not a gross one.
I’m not here to say one way or another whether I agree or disagree with Vigue’s proposal. I will say that given his age, and his background in construction, the idea he’s offering–basically paving our way as Mainers to prosperity shouldn’t come as a surprise. His plan is also lacking a number of key details like a map of where the proposed road will end up being built, what land needs to be acquired, and how many exits will be built, etc.
Vigue subscribes to an idea that economic globalization, which dramatically changed our economy throughout the 1990s, and at the turn of the 21st century, is going to continue to be the primary influencer of the world’s economy. Interestingly, this economic model is no longer a primary consideration for futurists, and people taking a more innovative look at the next quarter century. They believe we’re moving back towards more local/regional economic models.
So in the end, there’s no guarantee that if “we build it, they will come” in terms of usage of this toll highway, or what the actual economic benefit might be for Mainers. An even greater concern is Vigue’s lack of any specific proof that building this highway will actually provide any economic benefit at all to counties and communities this highway will cut across and dramatically change the cultures of. What happens once the money is invested, the infrastructure is in place, the property seized, and then, at that point of no return, no measurable economic benefit is to be found? Why should we give up things like land, quality of life, and other benefits that can’t be quantified with mere $$ signs, if in fact this is no longer a strategy with clear outcomes for success? We’re back to building a road for $2 billion, or suffer dire consequences. Perhaps there are multiple paths to economic growth that go beyond what we’ve been doing for the past 50 years. Not everyone subscribes to road building as a tool for growth.
Economic pipe dreams that inform most of these kinds of discussions, as covered by the press, perpetrated by Maine’s economic development community, and promoted by politicians, are always short on details. Just a little more snake oil and empty promises, thank you. These economic schemes are rooted in the past, looking backward towards some golden era of prosperity, and a time that has disappeared and isn’t coming back.
This kind of thinking makes little or no sense for people who are looking to the future, and believe in a new way of decision-making, a different kind of economy, and prosperity built upon local models of growth.