Renewed interest in east-west highway reaches State House

Peter Vigue, CEO of Cianbro, discusses the benefits of having an East-West Highway while taking the podium at the Access Atlantica confrence in Orono in August 2007.
John Clarke Russ | BDN
Peter Vigue, CEO of Cianbro, discusses the benefits of having an East-West Highway while taking the podium at the Access Atlantica confrence in Orono in August 2007. Buy Photo
By Eric Russell, BDN Staff
Posted Feb. 14, 2012, at 4:40 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Cianbro Corp. Chairman Peter Vigue, a longtime proponent of an east-west highway in Maine, urged lawmakers on Tuesday to support a new feasibility study for a project he believes is vital to the state’s economic future.

“What we’re suggesting here is that Maine has every potential to become the Northeast trade gateway,” Vigue said during a public hearing before the Legislature’s Transportation Committee on LD 1671.

The bill would approve an estimated $300,000 in funding for what the its sponsor, Sen. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley, has called an “ investor-grade study,” to convince businesses to finance construction.

The idea of an east-west highway that would, in Vigue’s words, fill Maine’s “hollow middle” and connect New Brunswick to New Hampshire or Quebec has been around for decades. Many studies have been conducted in the past, but the project has languished over reticence in the public and private sector to make such a big investment.

Many, however, believe that an east-west highway still offers huge potential.

Jennifer Mills, who with her husband owns Pittston Farm, a lodge and resort near Moosehead Lake, testified that “the proposed highway has been talked about since I was little and I’m no longer a little girl anymore.

“We need it and we need it desperately.”

Vigue said the new corridor would be a huge asset for companies that move goods from Maine and Canada to the rest of the country, and vice versa. It would avoid communities but still be connected to communities, he said, and would promote future growth.

Vigue also has proposed the creation of a utilities line along the corridor. Those lease payments would help finance the project.

Others in the business community testified in support of the bill, including representatives of the Associated Builders of Maine.

Not everyone thought a new study was a good idea.

Demonstrators representing a group called Defending Water for Life in Maine opposed LD 1671 during a protest outside the State House prior to Tuesday’s public hearing.

The group outlined a number of reasons why it’s opposed to the study and the project in general, the biggest of which was that taxpayers funds should not be used to fund what would be a private toll road.

Thomas has said all along, though, that he doesn’t believe government could or should fund this study. Instead, he envisions federal grant funding. Some have suggested that funds from the Maine Turnpike Authority could be used to fund an east-west highway.

Defending Water for Life rejected the notion that a new highway would bring big economic benefits to Maine and any benefits would be offset by increased pollution and more burning of fossil fuels.

The group also criticized Vigue for pushing a project that would benefit his firm.

“Cianbro regularly performs huge infrastructure projects all over New England and moves their work force,” the group’s Chris Buchanan said in a statement. “We are not looking at new job creation beyond a small number of gas station service jobs.”

Representatives of Maine’s railway transportation system also testified against the bill.

Tony Donovan, president of the Maine Rail Transit Coalition, said he doesn’t know of any goods that are so important to ship that “it’s worth building a billion dollars’ worth of roads.”

LD 1671 likely will be scheduled for a work session among Transportation Committee members and then a vote in the next couple weeks.

http://bangordailynews.com/2012/02/14/news/augusta/renewed-interest-in-east-west-highway-reaches-state-house/ printed on July 23, 2014