East-west highway feasibility study won’t determine route, Maine official says

Posted July 16, 2012, at 5:49 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — It has been reported over and over that the exact route of a proposed east-west highway would be part of a $300,000 state feasibility study, but that is just not true, Nina Fisher, a Maine Department of Transportation spokeswoman, said Monday.

“It is not determining a route,” she said of the study. “Cianbro has proposed a route, but that’s not our role in the process. [The feasibility study] will simply determine if the numbers are there — if it will be a feasible investment.”

Gov. Paul LePage signed a bill in early April authorizing $300,000 for an east-west highway feasibility study, which would connect Calais to Coburn Gore. Several news stories, including reports published in the Bangor Daily News that quoted MDOT officials, have said the study would include the final route. Fisher said that information was incorrect and she apologized for the errors.

She also said no work has been done on the feasibility study because the first request for proposals netted only one submission.

“We only received one proposal back, but it was a complete misrepresentation of the scope of what we were looking for,” she said. “We’re revising the scope and we hope to send it back out for proposals in the coming months.”

Since the first request for proposals was unsuccessful and the scope is being retooled, the extent of the feasibility study is still in flux, according to Fisher.

“This is not a design,” she stressed. “It’s not a traditional study like we did in the past and it’s not a geographic study — it’s a feasibility study.”

The Department of Transportation has “been tasked with conducting a traffic and revenue analysis for a proposed privately funded, privately operated and publicly accessible toll highway from Calais to Coburn Gore,” Fisher said. “We have an impartial analytical role and are conducting the study in an independent manner.”

The bill requires a report with the study findings to be presented to the Legislature’s Transportation Committee by Jan. 15, 2013, but with the delay in starting the study, Fisher said she expects MDOT leaders will ask for an extension.

The proposed 220-mile toll highway, expected to cost between $1.5 billion and $2 billion, would start in Calais, follow Stud Mill Road to Costigan, just north of Old Town, cross the Penobscot River, then head northwest to LaGrange, Milo, south of Dover-Foxcroft, Monson and The Forks before connecting to Route 27 and crossing the Canadian border into Quebec. The initial plan calls for six interchanges in Maine.

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

Proponents, including Peter Vigue, chairman and CEO of Cianbro Corp., who has spent the last couple of years making presentations in Maine and Canada about building the highway, say the four-lane roadway would provide a conduit for trade and tourism between Maine, the Midwest and points in Canada.

Opponents have voiced concerns about the project. They fear it could harm the state’s natural resources, cause an increase in pollution and lead to utilities such as an oil pipeline being added to the project. Another drawback, they contend, is that the highway would be privately funded by secret deep-pocket investors.

State lawmakers have commissioned similar highway studies in the past. One authorized by the 102nd Maine Legislature 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.

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.

All prior east-west highway proposals have relied on state and Federal Highway Administration funding for construction, and all have stalled. Vigue has said that lack of available taxpayer dollars is one of the reasons he started talking to private investors interested in addressing the state’s transportation needs.

Fisher said people always are surprised when they hear the recently approved feasibility study will not include the exact route.

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