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Northernmost Maine? I-95 Won't Get You There

It's the most famous joke in Maine: "Which way to Millinocket?" The punch line: "You can't get there from here." Sixty years after Marshall Dodge came up with it, it still feels true.

At the very northern end of Interstate 95, traffic dwindles to just a few thousand cars a day. Past that, there's no sign of the highway residents were promised more than 60 years ago.

I-95 did eventually get to Millinocket -- a paper mill town carved out of the Maine woods -- and it went on north for another 60 miles or so. But then it takes an abrupt right turn to connect with the Trans-Canada Highway in Houlton, leaving the top of Maine without interstate access.

"It may be complete for people who don't live here, but for those of us who live in northern Maine, we're not satisfied with the exit point," longtime state legislator John Martin says.

An Isolated Economy

Back in the 1940s, the Maine Legislature approved a four-lane toll highway all the way up the state, but the plan was shelved when the federal government approved the Interstate Highway Act in the 1950s.

Martin says I-95 brought tourists and jobs to southern Maine, but northern Maine was cut off -- left instead with high unemployment, woodsy roads and a safety problem so severe that Martin advises people to drive down the middle of the road at night.

"We have -- literally, some nights -- three or four moose accidents," he says.

The area produces potatoes and other crops and a lot of wood products. But without an interstate, Martin says, some truckers don't want to haul goods out of northern Maine.

And then there's the problem of all those 70-foot tractor trailers loaded with potatoes and lumber winding through small downtowns. Steve Buck is the manager of the northern Maine city of Caribou.  His office window gives him a view of quickly deteriorating asphalt.

"See the dark tracks that are appearing on that pavement? That pavement is one year old," he says.

Heavy trucks making tight turns are literally pushing the asphalt into ruts. If the interstate came north, truckers wouldn't have to drive through downtown Caribou, and the city wouldn't need to spring for so much costly repaving.

A Plan That Can't Get There, Either

Enter Maine Sen. Susan Collins, a Caribou native. She got an earmark to improve the area's economy through transportation, so now there's a colorful map showing a proposed 100-mile highway connecting northernmost Maine to Interstate 95.

A new highway would help everyone, particularly truckers, says Kat Beaudoin, chief planner for Maine's Department of Transportation.

"Anytime that a truck can save a few minutes on a trip, it definitely helps," she says. "It helps in terms of their fuel waste."

But to actually build the four-lane divided highway would suck up all the state and federal funding for Maine's roads for two years -- and then some.

"We'll be lucky to get the potholes fixed and the roads plowed, let alone build a new highway," economist Charlie Colgan says.

But that doesn't mean nothing will happen; one small section of that new highway will actually be built next year.  It will allow trucks to avoid Caribou's downtown and speed up travel time for anyone passing through.

Dale Chamberland runs a trucking business in St. Agatha -- pronounced "Sant Agat" in local-speak. It's a town so far north, you can catch glimpses of Canada across the river. He says anything that speeds up travel time will help his bottom line.

"Everybody says it's a global economy, and if it's a global economy, then Sant Agat -- we're right in the middle of the world just like everybody else!"

But it'll be a long time before you can get there on a modern highway.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Andrea de Leon
Andrea de Leon is NPR's Northeast Bureau Chief and edits the network's coverage of addiction and treatment. In her long career at NPR, de Leon has shaped coverage of Donald Trump's business and legal affairs in New York, superstorm Sandy, hurricane Katrina, and 9/11. As the editor for addiction and treatment, she has focused on the rise of the opioid epidemic, settlements with the nation's opioid manufacturers and suppliers, the patchwork of treatment for addiction in the United States, and the changing supply of illegal drugs. She is the winner of numerous awards, including the Leo C. Lee Award for her contribution to public radio journalism. She is a past member of the board of PRNDI (now the Public Media Journalists Association) and The Salt Institute for Documentary Studies.
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