Transportation Committee passes bill for east-west highway study

Posted Feb. 16, 2012, at 6:40 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Legislature’s Transportation Committee on Thursday approved a resolve that would dedicate $300,000 from the state’s highway fund to pay for a new feasibility study for an east-west highway.

Republicans on the Transportation Committee said the request is more than reasonable given the fact that the money already is dedicated and the project has tremendous potential.

“This could create thousands of jobs over several years,” said Rep. Richard Cebra, R-Naples, the House chairman of the Transportation Committee. “There are investors already lined up; they really deserve a study they can have confidence in.”

Democrats on the Transportation Committee voted against the resolve, but not because they don’t support it.

“We just wanted a little more time to gather information,” said Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham. “We don’t know if $300,000 is enough. We’re not sure of the timing because this is not an emergency bill. We just wanted until next week to figure these things out.”

It will go to the House and Senate for consideration. Diamond said he hopes some of his concerns are addressed prior to final votes.

At a public hearing earlier this week, supporters and opponents each made their case on a potential east-west highway, an idea that has been around for decades.

Cianbro Corp. Chairman Peter Vigue, a longtime proponent who has been recruiting investors for the privately funded highway, urged lawmakers to support the study.

“What we’re suggesting here is that Maine has every potential to become the Northeast trade gateway,” he said.

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. It would avoid communities but still be connected to communities, and would promote future growth by filling Maine’s “hollow middle.”

The exact route of a proposed highway to connect New Brunswick to New Hampshire or Quebec would be part of the study.

Demonstrators representing a group called Defending Water for Life in Maine opposed the study 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 taxpayer money should not be used to fund what would be a private toll road.

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.

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

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