Private east-west highway under study differs from federally designated corridor

Posted April 09, 2012, at 8:23 p.m.
Last modified April 10, 2012, at 9:59 a.m.

BREWER, Maine — A privately funded east-west highway favored by Peter Vigue, chairman and CEO of Cianbro Corp., that gained state funding for a feasibility study last week differs from the east-west highway that was identified as a Congressional High Priority Corridor in mid-2005.

The federally designated corridor would run from Calais to Watertown, N.Y., cost about $12.5 billion and take more than 25 years to build.

That route has not advanced past the talking stage, primarily because of its price tag, which is why Vigue said he started studying a similar route that accomplishes the same goals but at a fraction of the cost.

Another big difference is that the state and Federal Highway Administration would pay for the Calais-to-New York state connection while the east-west highway proposed by Vigue would be bankrolled by private investors and maintained by money generated from tolls.

“There have been multiple studies done since the 1960s and all those studies, including the one done recently, basically start in Calais, follow Route 9 to Bangor, take Interstate 95 to Newport and then [go] through Skowhegan, Farmington and over to Bethel,” Vigue said recently of the designated high-priority route. After leaving Maine, the highway would “cross the mountains of New Hampshire and go over to Vermont and New York” if those states jumped on the bandwagon to build the federal highway, he added.

Vigue said he knew years ago when he sat on the Bangor-based East West Highway Association board that the cost of the massive infrastructure project and the multistate partnerships needed would mean the highway project would go nowhere.

“I starting studying it from a different angle and my approach is much more simple,” the Pittsfield businessman said.

The concept proposed by Vigue calls for a 220-mile toll highway that starts in Calais, follows the Stud Mill Road to Costigan, just north of Old Town, crosses the Penobscot River, then heads northwest to LaGrange, Milo, south of Dover-Foxcroft, Monson and The Forks before connecting to Route 27 and crossing the Canadian border into Quebec.

“That route is not etched in stone,” noted Ted Talbot, spokesman for the Maine Department of Transportation.

From the border, it is only about 60 miles to Trans Canada Highway Route 10 near Sherbrooke — with connections to Buffalo, Detroit and other Midwest destinations — and to Trans Canada Highway Route 73 to Beauceville, located south of Quebec City.

The expected cost of the toll highway is between $1.5 billion and $2 billion, and if everything goes as planned it could be operational by 2019, Vigue said.

Gov. Paul LePage signed the east-west highway bill on Thursday. It provides $300,000 for a feasibility study of the privately funded highway. The final route of the proposed highway would be part of the study, Talbot said.

State lawmakers have commissioned similar highway studies in the past, including one by the 102nd Maine Legislature that recommended an east-west highway corridor then called the International Atlantic Corridor Road project.

The 118th Legislature passed a law in 1997 requiring the Maine DOT to conduct a study of the costs, benefits and social and environmental impacts of an east-west highway.

In fact, the idea for an east-west highway “was first broached in a 1937 economic development plan for the state prepared under the auspices of the federal Works Progress Administration,” according to “A Brief History of Rural Development Policy,” published by the New England Environmental Finance Center in 2007.

There are a number of benefits to building the toll roadway that would connect the Canadian Maritimes and Quebec, according to Vigue and other supporters of the bill signed by LePage. The biggest benefit is reduced transportation costs for those shipping Maine products to the Midwest, the western U.S. and Canada because the route would cut off hundreds of miles for truckers. Another benefit is that the highway would provide a direct route for drivers heading to Maine destinations, the backers say.

“This is going to enhance tourism,” Vigue said. “I’m very confident of that.”

The route also could be used for utility and communication needs, he said, and would allow Canadian tandem trailers and heavy loads now barred in Maine.

“It’s not just for the Canadians. Maine’s largest industry is tourism,” Vigue noted.

Those concerned about utilities connected with the project should know that “everything that happens in that right-of-way will have to go through state and federal regulatory agencies” to gain approval, he said.

Several groups oppose any east-west highway. Some environmentalists who testified against the bill said it would increase pollution and lead to more burning of fossil fuels. Others said the highway might exploit the state’s water, timber and gravel resources without adding value. Representatives of Maine’s railway transportation system also testified against the bill.

But the fact that truckers heading to Detroit would be able to cut hundreds of miles off their route with the new toll highway would not only help their wallets, it would also cut the amount of pollution produced to get to the same location, Vigue stressed.

The LePage administration joined construction, pulp and paper, and other business groups in supporting the bill.

“This road will connect central Maine to millions of new customers in Canada,” Republican Sen. Doug Thomas of Ripley, the bill’s chief sponsor, has said. “I hope that after decades of layoffs and business closings that this is the beginning of a more prosperous Maine.”

Recent discussions in the Brewer-Holden-Eddington area about the planned Interstate 395-Route 9 connector, which is designed to ease heavy traffic between the Canadian Maritimes and the federal highway system, has led to some confusion over the two east-west highway proposals, Talbot said.

“One is the southerly east-west highway and one is the northerly east-west highway,” the Maine DOT spokesman said. “They’re not connected in studies right now and they’re not connected in funding right now.”

The federal transportation bill signed in 2005 allocated $1.1 billion to the state, with $28 million set aside for the federally designated east-west highway and a portion of that reserved to construct the I-395 extension.

Vigue, who has given more than 35 presentations over the last year about the proposed toll highway, testified during last month’s public hearing on the east-west highway bill in Augusta. He also has been talking with potential investors and Canadian officials.

“Based on meetings and interactions and conversation that I’ve had I’m very confident we can raise the money — extremely confident,” he said.

The Maine DOT is expected to complete the feasibility study by the end of the year.

“Once we get confirmation, we will begin the permanent design process,” Vigue said. “We believe the permitting process will take two to three years and the construction will take three years.”

BDN writer Eric Russell and Glenn Adams of The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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