LIANE HANSEN, host:
NPR has been broadcasting a series of stories about Interstate 95. The highway connects Florida to Maine with stops at almost every major city along the East Coast. The highway is an economic engine for growth - sometimes more growth than it can handle.
But in Northern Maine, traffic dwindles to just a few thousand cars a day, and as NPR's Andrea De Leon reports, residents still wait for the highway they were promised decades ago.
ANDREA DE LEON: It's the most famous joke in Maine:
Mr. MARSHALL DODGE: I was standing outside Southerland's IGA Store one morning when I heard a fliver approaching down the street toward me.
Unidentified Man: Which way to Millinocket?
Mr. DODGE: Well, you can go west at the next intersection.
DE LEON: Sixty years after Marshall Dodge came up with it, it still feels true.
Mr. DODGE: Well, let me see now, Millinocket. Come to think of it, you can't get there from here.
DE LEON: Interstate 95 eventually did get here to Millinocket. It's a paper mill town carved out of the Maine woods, and the interstate went on north for another 60 miles or so, before taking an abrupt right turn to connect with the Trans-Canada highway in Holton, leaving Northern Maine without interstate access. John Martin is a long-time state legislator.
Mr. JOHN MARTIN (State Legislator, Maine): 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 at this point.
DE LEON: 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. Back in the '40s, 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, rolling woodsy roads and a safety problem so severe that Martin advises people to drive down the middle of the road at night.
Mr. MARTIN: It gives you the capacity to have a little more time to react, in particular to a moose. And we have some nights you'll have three or four moose accidents.
DE LEON: 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.
Mr. STEVE BUCK (City Manager, Caribou): You see the dark cracks that are appearing on that pavement? That pavement is one year old.
DE LEON: 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.
Enter Maine's Senator 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 new 100-mile highway connecting northernmost Maine to Interstate 95.
Kat Beaudoin is the chief planner for Maine's Department of Transportation. She says a new highway would help everyone, particularly truckers.
Ms. KAT BEAUDOIN (Chief Planner, Maine Department of Transportation): Anytime that a truck can save a few minutes on a trip, it definitely helps in terms of their fuel waste.
DE LEON: But to actually build the four-lane divided highway would suck up all the state and federal funding for Maine's roads for two entire years and then some. Economist Charlie Colgan.
Mr. CHARLIE COLGAN (Economist): We'll be lucky to get the potholes fixed and the roads plowed, let alone build a major new highway.
DE LEON: But that doesn't mean nothing will happen. One small section of that new 100-mile 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.
(Soundbite of beeping)
DE LEON: Dale Chamberland runs R.F. Chamberland Trucking in St. Agatha, 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, and when he looks at the map:
Mr. DALE CHAMBERLAND (R.F. Chamberland Trucking): Everybody says it's a global economy, and if it's a global economy, well, St. Agatha, we're right in the middle of the world, just like everybody else.
DE LEON: But it'll be a long time before you can get to this part of the world on a modern highway.
Andrea De Leon, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.