LINCOLN, Maine — Peter Vigue has an idea that he says can save Lincoln Paper and Tissue LLC at least $2 million annually.
The 65-year-old Cianbro Corp. president and CEO sees potato farmers in Aroostook County, homeowners in Milo and woodsmen on the Golden Road similarly benefiting from an increased international trade using Eastport, the only port in the eastern U.S. deep enough to handle new supersized container ships now being built, he said.
Vigue unveiled his idea for the key to making that trade possible, a $2 billion east-west corridor highway, to about 175 Lincoln Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce members during the chamber’s annual dinner at the Knights of Columbus Hall on Friday night. Close to a dozen protesters picketed in front of the hall on Route 2.
Project opponents, including the Maine Sierra Club, see many problems that they believe the highway would create, including harm to waterways, water quality, critical habitat and threatened and endangered species; the threat of private property being taken by eminent domain; damage to local communities’ environment and economies; and destruction of public recreational lands.
Vigue scoffed at the criticism. The privately funded and owned toll highway could not invoke eminent domain to take people’s homes, an authority its private investors lack, and will not harm sensitive environmental areas, he said.
“It is very inappropriate to mislead people and not tell the truth and to look after your own personal desires at the expense of others,” Vigue said of the tactics used by the proposal’s enemies. “It’s not right.”
Vigue declined to identify the precise route being considered, but said the highway, which Gov. Paul LePage supports and state government allocated $300,000 to study, would be well south of Maine’s working forests. He said he feared that the project’s opponents would bully landowners whose property the highway might cross.
“We need to be sensitive to the environment and not destroy it. We need to be sensitive to the communities [of northern Maine] and not destroy their livelihoods,” Vigue said. “Does it take time? Yes. Is it going to take a lot of work? You bet. But it is achievable.”
The proposal seemed to please dinner attendees.
“Part of it is already there,” said Dale Tudor, owner of Lincoln Financial Center, of the highway. “I don’t think it’s something that needs to be sold [to people], because it doesn’t cost the taxpayers.”
“I think it’s the last big thing the state could do to help increase economic growth,” said David Shannon, CEO of Lincoln’s Penobscot Valley Hospital and a member of the RSU 67 school board.
The highway would link New Brunswick to Quebec by way of a 220-mile toll route that would, under the tentative current plan, run from near Eastport west to connect to the road network near the Canadian city of Sherbrooke, which already connects to Montreal and Ottawa.
The three Canadian cities offer connections to Interstates 91, 87, 81, 90 and 275. Through those roads, Maine’s east-west highway would put Maine a day’s travel from almost every major city in upper North America — including Chicago, Detroit, New York, Boston and Providence — or about 40 percent of the continent’s population, Vigue said.
With the highway, the state that thinks of itself as the end of the road would center a sea, road and rail network that would connect Europe and Africa to the Far East through America’s heartland, he said.
And the highway, which would take six years for permitting and construction, would come at an opportune time. Experts predict that container-ship goods transport will increase from 80 million containers today to 243 million containers within 20 years, Vigue said.
Companies like Ford and General Motors see expanding international markets and need a deepwater port to ship from. Eastport could be it, he said.
“We are in the middle of the road and we have some things going for us that a lot of states don’t,” Vigue said. “We can do great things, because of the access we have to the population centers of this country.”
Maine would directly benefit from the connection, Vigue said. The state’s roundabout north-south highway network adds hundreds of dollars per truck for state products shipped and received. In LP&T’s case, Vigue estimated the cost to be about $500 per shipment.
When reached Saturday, Lincoln Paper and Tissue co-owner Keith Van Scotter said he found Vigue’s estimations of the highway’s impact upon his mill “not unreasonable, but we haven’t done an exact analysis.
“The point is that people who oppose things like this are very anti-growth and dishonest,” Van Scotter said in an email.
For the highway plan to work, Mainers will have to recognize that Canada is a good neighbor, Vigue said. A third of Maine’s foreign-sold goods go to Canada, 37,000 Maine jobs depend on Canadian trade and more than 60 Canadian companies employ 5,500 Mainers. Canadian tourists add more than $230 million to Maine’s economy annually, Vigue said.
And the highway would feature off-ramps to several roads — including I-95 and routes 15, 11, 201, and 27 — without bisecting any Maine towns or the working forest that is Maine’s breadbasket.
“Can you tell me that it is right in these regions that the death rate exceeds the birth rate? What’s the real message? What is it telling us? Look at the State of Maine today. Study it,” Vigue said. “The population base of the northern half of the state is shrinking. People are migrating to the southern half of the state or leaving the state.”
“I also feel and sense the pain and suffering that many of the people in this state, particularly in the northern half of the state, are enduring. It does not have to be that way. This is America,” Vigue said. “We are better than that.”