LePage agrees to slow down east-west highway process

Posted Aug. 14, 2012, at 5:42 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 14, 2012, at 7:21 p.m.
Gov. Paul LePage
Robert F. Bukaty
Gov. Paul LePage

AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage announced Tuesday that the Maine Department of Transportation will slow work on a feasibility study for an east-west highway through rural and central Maine.

The move came a day after Sen. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley, a longtime supporter of the project, revealed that he had asked the LePage administration for assurances that the state would not use eminent domain to seize private property if the project moves forward toward construction.

Thomas said constituent concerns spurred the request.

“I’m just listening to my constituents,” he told the Bangor Daily News on Monday. “I don’t think they have anything to worry about but they’re convinced that they do. I think it’s still a good idea, but I think that we need to slow it down.”

The governor apparently concurred. In a release issued Tuesday, LePage said he wants to ensure that a “thorough and thoughtful process will take place.” That process could take years, LePage said in the release.

“The east-west highway is an idea that’s been around for a dozen years and that’s what it is, an idea,” LePage said in the release. “We must explore the facts and go on a fact-finding mission, and that is what the state is doing.”

LePage said state transportation officials have yet to define the scope of the project or “moved forward to the point of implementation.”

“Right now, we need to decide where we want to put an east-west highway, is it feasible, and what would the costs be,” LePage said.

“We acknowledge and value the concerns of Sen. Thomas and his constituents,” Transportation Commissioner David Bernhardt said in the release.

Bernhardt referred to “information deficiencies, especially regarding connections from the proposed road to public transportation infrastructure in both Maine and Canada” as reason to seek more time from the Legislature’s Transportation Committee for the study.

“I am happy for my constituents,” Thomas told the Bangor Daily News on Tuesday afternoon. “No one should have to live worried about losing their house. Now let’s hope we can clear the air and have a thoughtful, deliberate conversation to come to the right conclusions. I phoned the governor and thanked him.”

Thomas, who has served on the Transportation Committee for eight years, sponsored a successful bill in the last legislative session that called for the Maine Department of Transportation to conduct a feasibility study on whether an east-west toll highway can support itself while creating jobs that would slow the outmigration of young people from Maine. The study will cost the state an estimated $300,000.

A leading proponent of the east-west highway, Peter Vigue, chairman of Cianbro Corp. in Pittsfield, is traveling this week and was not immediately available for comment Tuesday. He said Monday that he supports both of Thomas’ initiatives and repeated a pledge he has made before: That the east-west highway project can be accomplished without any eminent domain takings and without encroaching on public lands protected by conservation measures.

“We were supportive when the Legislature put forward the idea to create an independent investment grade study on the proposed highway, and we continue to support the Legislature’s decisions on plans to move ahead with the study,” Vigue said in a release issued Monday. “If the Legislature or the Maine Department of Transportation feels that they do not have enough information about the highway proposal at this time to move ahead toward a useful independent investment grade study, then we support putting off the study until the necessary information has been gathered. … We continue to work diligently to determine the most beneficial and least disruptive route for the proposed highway and we are making good progress, though the proposed right of way and many other factors are incomplete at this time. It makes sense for the Legislature and the Department of Transportation to slow down the efforts to complete an independent investment grade study until all the information is available.”

Vigue said he is studying various routes for the 220-mile highway through Maine and that his chief criteria are cost-effectiveness, efficiency and a route that is as unobtrusive as possible to private property owners and public lands. Vigue proposes to develop the highway as a private venture.

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