News that the proposed route of a long-debated four-lane highway toll road in southern Maine could involve slicing into a 500-acre, 13th-generation family farm caused some buzz this month. The story is typical of infrastructure-related tension in 2024.

The Press Herald’s reporting featured details all but guaranteed to stoke indignation. More than $200 million is to be poured into 5 miles of hotly debated regional toll road between Gorham and Westbrook, 10 long years in the works, and now that road may need to eat into a 304-year-old farm that produces milk and ice cream, taps maple syrup, and occasionally hosts cross-country skiers on its land.

A concerned letter writer referred to the need to protect “the wonderful oasis of animals and farmland that is Smiling Hill Farm.” The head of the Maine Broadband Coalition took the opportunity to promptly call for the investment to go to broadband instead. “Once again, the Department of Transportation shows that it is really just a highway department” was the pronouncement of one online commenter.

Farm or no farm – and we agree it is an impressive and charming farm – the plan to push ahead with 5 miles of new highway is (still) a glaring example of unambitious planning, a doubling-down on a system of infrastructure that does not prepare Maine for a better future.

There are more effective solutions to vehicle congestion than road-building, which forces people into cars, drives sprawl, increases vehicle miles traveled and increases carbon emissions. Yes, these alternative solutions are all much harder to pull off. That doesn’t mean we can shirk the responsibility to try.

In July 2022, Portland City Council asked the Maine Turnpike Authority to halt work on the project until a “rapid transit study” was completed. Last month, such a study was released. It recommended the development of a rapid bus service connecting Gorham, Westbrook and Portland.

If you find yourself bristling at the concept of a rapid bus service, or doubtful that mass transit could make a meaningful difference to urban and suburban congestion, workforce mobility or the health of a town, remember that you have never encountered a service like this in Maine. We do not have one.

Public meetings pertaining to the Gorham Connector kick off next month. This type of planning standoff is going to play out all over the state in the years to come, as well it should. Any move away from straight-ahead road-building is bound to be slow and fraught. But that movement should be all but nonnegotiable. We did not need a local transit study to tell us that it would be better from a civic, social and environmental standpoint to implement a system of local transit that is too good to pass up.

Change like this requires bold visualization, insistence on new and unfamiliar standards of public service, and supportive infrastructure. We can achieve these things at a reasonable cost and with a critical return on that investment for the environment, community cohesion and sought-after population growth. Or we can pave yet more land and stay sitting in our cars.

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