Walt Wuthmann ’14 may hail from California, but he’s on his way to becoming a driving force in the state of Maine. Wuthmann is spending his summer studying Maine’s East-West Highway conflict, an 80-year-long debate over a highway that would offer a much faster way to cross the state.
Maine is the only state in the Northern New England and Canadian Maritime region without a major east-west highway corridor. Though a cross-state highway has been under consideration for decades, the project has been forestalled by roadblocks including environmental concerns, geographical challenges (such as having to cross the Appalachians), and debates over using private versus public funding to cover the enormous cost of a large-scale construction project.
The issue has become a highly partisan one in state legislation. Conservative legislators argue that the highway would bolster Maine’s slow-growing economy and small businesses. On the other side of the coin, liberal legislators protest that destroying wildlife, wetlands, and landscapes is an unsustainable way to boost revenue. Other opposition to the project comes from citizens who want to preserve Maine’s small-town community culture, and landowners who don’t want highway construction interfering with their property.
Wuthmann is exploring this complex issue under the guidance of Bowdoin English Professor Anthony Walton, whose “Telling Environmental Stories” class inspired Wuthmann to pursue research that explores a crossover between his two majors, English and Environmental Studies. He is supported by a Surdna Foundation Undergraduate Research Fellowship, one of Bowdoin’s many grants that support student research.
Though Wuthmann came into the summer with an opinion about the highway, he has made a conscious effort to read and understand opposing viewpoints to avoid bias in his final paper. He is grateful to have started his project early, and says that writing an 80- to 120-page paper on this complicated topic will be more challenging than he had predicted. “It’s kind of a paradox,” he confessed. “I felt much more ready before I started.”
So far Wuthmann has spent much of his time reading a wide range of nonfiction, including technical papers such as transportation reports, to acquire background information on highway construction, Maine history and politics, and the project’s long progression.
Though much of the news and media attention focuses on legislation and policy, Wuthmann’s project will emphasize the culture, history, and regional politics that surround the highway’s proposed construction. Wuthmann also aims to better understand Maine citizens’ dominant opinion of the highway. Currently, he said, there is “no unified idea of what it is for the state of Maine, and whether this is something the state actually needs.”
Once he’s finished his assessment of the East-West Highway, Wuthmann hopes to adapt portions of his paper into articles to send to local newspapers, in the hopes of adding to public knowledge about the issue.
Professor Walton noted that Wuthmann brings “fresh eyes and an open mind” to the debate. “This is a very complicated and controversial issue, and there are compelling positions on each side that seem to contradict or cancel out the others,” Walton said. “Readers of Walt’s finished project will be much more deeply informed about what’s at stake and able to draw their own conclusions.”