State-appointed group exploring alternatives to extending I-95 in Aroostook

9 months ago

FORT KENT, Maine — State and county officials and business owners will explore how the region’s roads can be better connected to Interstate 95, including revisiting previous studies to extend the interstate from Houlton to Fort Kent. 

This is the result of a bill, LD 607 “Resolve, to Direct the Department of Transportation to Examine Improving Highway Connections from Interstate 95 to the St. John Valley,” which was passed in June. Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, was a co-sponsor.

The bill originally focused on extending the interstate to Fort Kent, which the Maine Turnpike Authority was given the ability to do in 1941. But during a public hearing in March, Department of Transportation Deputy Commissioner Nina Fisher said federal officials determined that this project didn’t meet federal funding criteria, according to a report from Maine Public. Fisher estimated extending I-95 would cost $1.8 billion, and said the highest federal grant she’s seen for a similar project was $292 million. 

Although several local officials, including County Commissioners and the region’s lawmakers, supported the bill, the funding issues associated with extending I-95 to Fort Kent shifted the final focus to improving access to the interstate from existing roads. 

The new focus may result in several improvements to roads throughout Aroostook County, depending on what priorities are identified by a stakeholder group the commissioner of transportation appointed. Some residents see this as a more beneficial approach anyway.

“This started because there was a bill about extending the interstate, and it morphed into conversations about a bigger picture,” said Maine Department of Transportation Communications Director Paul Merrill.

Sara Anderson, who co-owns Northstar Variety with her husband Dave, said the expansion of I-95 would have been harmful to people and businesses along Route 161, especially if the road were expanded into the interstate.

Northstar is one of two stores on a 40-mile stretch of Route 161, which connects Fort Kent and Caribou. St. Peter’s Country Store in Sinclair is the other. 

“A lot of people’s homes and businesses along this road would be gone,” she said. “People are not going to rebuild. They’ll leave The County. Stores like us won’t rebuild because they won’t have places to rebuild,” she said.

Anderson was more supportive of the current goal of improving roads instead.

Sarah and Dave Anderson have owned and operated Northstar Variety in New Sweden since 1998 and have made the store a hub for the local community. (Melissa Lizotte | Aroostook Republican)

The 11-member stakeholder group will consist of state and county officials, plus business owners. The group will first meet on Sept. 18 in Madawaska. Other meetings will be in Fort Kent in October and on Nov. 14 in Caribou. Each meeting will start at 3 p.m., with public comments reserved from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m.

The stakeholders’ work will be reviewed during a virtual meeting on Dec. 12, and the DOT will submit a final report with findings and recommendations to the Joint Standing Committee on Transportation by the end of the year. 

Maine Department of Transportation Commissioner Bruce Van Note said that he anticipates identifying changes that improve the quality of life in Aroostook County and boost the region’s economy.

“Aroostook County is a special place and a key element of our statewide transportation system in Maine,” he said.

Aroostook County Administrator Ryan Pelletier said that the county government is not involved with the stakeholder group, but that he supports the idea of improving local transportation.

“Any time attention is brought to Aroostook County’s highway and transportation needs, it’s a good thing,” he said. “I think the DOT has made it clear that a four-lane highway from Houlton up to the St. John Valley probably isn’t in the cards due to financial constraints.”

But Pelletier said looking at smaller projects, such as the 3.8-mile-long, $20 million Caribou Connector and the Presque Isle bypass, as parts of a greater whole is also beneficial. 

Pelletier said he travels Route 161 regularly for work, and the road could be widened with lanes added in certain areas. Such improvements could be hugely beneficial to trucking companies, he said.

“Minutes matter to those guys,” he said. “Their bottom dollar is driven by efficiencies in their transportation, and the transportation infrastructure.”

Pelletier said officials discussed expanding I-95 to the St. John Valley in the early 2000s. And while it was ultimately shot down because of the amount of funding required, he said it was also controversial among towns in the region. Towns in the valley are laid out east to west, and a highway going north from Houlton would ultimately leave some of those communities feeling left out, he said.

Northstar Store co-owner Anderson, along with Pelletier, said Route 161 could use several improvements such as a passing lane for large trucks.

“Some of the hills are really steep, and 18-wheelers have to slow down which causes traffic to back up,” she said. “Sometimes in the winter we have 18-wheelers that can’t get up over the hill, and boy that leaves quite the backup in traffic.”

Phase I of the Presque Isle bypass project designed to divert industrial traffic from Main Street. (Paul Bagnall | The Star-Herald)

Northstar is located at a four-way intersection. Anderson said there is a blind spot while driving through the intersection that could lead to an accident. Most vehicles go about too fast through the intersection, she said. The area once had a blinking light that alerted drivers, but it was taken out by a logging truck.

“We wouldn’t mind having that blinking light back here, if nothing else,” she said.

Pelletier said people in the region seem to be cautiously optimistic about efforts to revisit improving these roads — cautious because the I-95 discussions decades ago did not come to fruition and optimistic about potential road improvements. 

“This opens the door to transportation improvements — bypasses where they make sense, passing lanes where they make sense, and upgrades to existing infrastructure corridors like 161 in Route 1,” he said. “Those are the types of improvements where everybody benefits. I think that makes people a little more optimistic about the possibilities here.”