AUGUSTA, Maine — The discussion over whether to build an East-West highway dissecting Maine has drifted in and out the public sphere for the last decade or more but has been dormant for awhile.
Although now may seem like a bad time to revisit the long-standing debate given today’s economic challenges, one lawmaker said he believes now is the perfect time.
Sen. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley, has sponsored a bill, approved for next year’s second regular session of the 125th Legislature, that would fund a new feasibility study for the project.
“It’s amazing how much work has been done behind the scenes on this,” Thomas said. “The reason this issue needs to move forward is simple. The return on investing a small amount of money needed for the proposed study would be huge.”
Thomas said Maine Department of Transportation Commissioner David Bernhardt and Gov. Paul LePage have been supportive of his idea. Cianbro Corp. Chairman Peter Vigue also has been a longtime supporter of an East-West highway that would cut across northern and central Maine and allow goods and services to flow more freely.
“What I’m proposing is an investor-grade study; a bankable study,” Thomas said. “Every other study has been biased in one way or another.”
The Piscataquis County senator said his believes the route should run through Maine and connect New Brunswick with Quebec. He said it would use existing roads as the foundation and, when built, would be a toll highway.
Rep. Ed Mazurek of Rockland, the ranking Democrat on the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, said the idea of an East-West highway is a good one. He’s just not sure it’s possible at the moment.
“I think funding is going to be the major stumbling block in any project and it would be almost prohibitive the way things are going right now,” Mazurek said.
Mazurek also said the proposed route could be a source of tension.
“The people in the northern section want it up there but that may not be the best area,” he said.
The divide may not just be Republican vs. Democrat but north vs. south, which would further perpetuate the “Two Maines” theory.
Thomas said he doesn’t think that’s a problem. He said Maine is no longer the end of the road, especially if you think internationally. Maine is directly in between the Canadian provinces of Quebec and New Brunswick.
Thomas also said people like Vigue have been doing some great behind-the-scenes work to bring the project closer to reality, including bringing high-level officials in Quebec and New Brunswick on board.
“The biggest problem is that people think this is pie in the sky. They think we’ve talked it to death,” Thomas said. “But it’s a very doable project.
“The good-paying construction and maintenance jobs will provide work for many families who desperately need the opportunities and the improved transportation for both business and tourism will be an even further boon to an area that hasn’t had a lot of good economic news in decades.”
Addressing the funding, Thomas said he doesn’t believe government could or should fund this project. Gov. LePage has suggested that funds from the Maine Turnpike Authority could be used to fund an East-West highway.
One of Vigue’s most recent ideas was to lease the median strip of Interstate 95 to Bangor Hydro, which could run a utilities line from Canada through Maine to the rest of New England. Those lease payments would help finance the project.
But Thomas’ bill, if approved, would fund just a feasibility study that he believes would cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $300,000.
“We need to get moving on it,” he said. “If we built this 20 years ago, how much different would our economy be?”