ORONO, Maine — While business and government officials from Maine and Canada gathered Tuesday morning at the University of Maine to discuss how to spur economic growth in the Atlantic region, a small cadre of central Maine residents outside the conference decried one of the proposals aimed at reaching that goal — an east-west highway through Maine’s interior.
Tuesday was the second day of the Cross-Border Economic Integration in the Northeast Conference, which featured a presentation from Cianbro Chairman and CEO Peter Vigue about plans for a privately funded 220-mile Maine toll highway connecting New Brunswick to Quebec.
Vigue said Tuesday afternoon that the highway idea is “very attractive” to the provinces of eastern Canada and would bring jobs and increased potential for tourism to Maine communities. The project also would open up new lanes for exportation of Maine goods to the provinces and the Midwest, Vigue said.
“This is a project we’ve worked at now for many years, and in recent years the economy has started to improve and turn around, and we began to really understand the demand for this corridor and this highway,” he said.
But it’s a need that protesters displaying signs Tuesday outside Wells Conference Center, where the event was held, don’t see.
Peter Brenc of Dover-Foxcroft, David Bessler of Atkinson and Peter Eldredge of Guilford argued that Cianbro has yet to prove towns surrounding the route of the highway would see increased prosperity because of its existence.
Brenc argued that Interstate 95 has been routing traffic through Howland and Millinocket for decades and that the highway hasn’t helped those “ghost towns” through economic hardship.
Bessler said Vigue has been vague about how the highway will draw business to Maine and that the temporary construction jobs it will create will go away after a few years. He said he believes the project would do more to change the identity and “soul” of the area than to improve the economy.
The men displayed signs carrying messages such as: “Vigue’s dream is our nightmare,” “Don’t ruin our townships” and “Don’t break the heart of Maine.”
While the highway undoubtedly would serve as a shortcut for Canadian commerce, the protesters said, they would rather see Maine’s interior kept as is.
“We’re all in the path of it,” Brenc said, adding that he didn’t want central Maine communities to be divided in half by a “swath of road.”
The state will conduct an independent study to explore the feasibility of the new road. Vigue said he is confident the state will like what it finds.
“The state of Maine should evaluate for itself — not for me or for anyone else — but evaluate for itself that this is the right thing for the state of Maine and that it will benefit the state of Maine,” Vigue said.
Vigue said the number of residents in favor of the project far exceeds “the number of adversarial people that don’t want to see Maine grow.”
“The facts are that the economy is going in the wrong direction and that there are people who … want to live in these rural areas that are deserving of an opportunity to earn a strong income,” Vigue said. “We have zero intentions of going through a community with a highway or a corridor and destroying it.”
“If people who are opposed to this project have a better idea at improving the quality of life in these areas, have a better idea at re-employing people that are unemployed or underemployed, have a better idea on how to take people off of social programs and put them back to work, then I’m more than willing to listen,” Vigue said.