East-west highway foes say project would hurt businesses, environment

Posted April 30, 2013, at 2:58 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A proposed 220-mile east-highway across Maine will hurt local businesses and destroy wildlife habitat, opponents of the project said at a State House event Tuesday.

Patrick McGowan, a former Route 2 business owner, Maine conservation commissioner, legislator and Democratic candidate for governor, said Tuesday that “people in this Capitol have rejected the notion of an east-west highway since 1937.” He called the proposal “the single largest destruction of fisheries and wildlife habitat in the history of this state by a private entity.”

He and other business owners spoke during a media event hosted by the Maine Chapter of the Sierra Club before the Legislature’s Transportation Committee held public hearings on six bills related to the proposed $2.1 billion private toll highway from Calais to Coburn Gore. Opponents contended that the project isn’t needed because public roadways already traverse the state and that it would imperil wildlife, create pollution and harm small businesses, both those based on natural resources and those that cater to travelers along Route 1, Route 2, Route 9 and Route 201.

Cianbro Corp. CEO Peter Vigue, a leading proponent of the east-west highway, has argued that such a roadway, which has been discussed on and off since 1937, would improve Maine’s overall economy, offering a particular boost for rural Maine communities devastated by the loss of traditional manufacturing and resource-based jobs.

Chuck Peabody, speaking on behalf of an organization called Maine Businesses Against the East-West Highway, said the highway would devastate small businesses like his, a Kennebec River whitewater rafting company that his family has run from The Forks for 31 years.

Peabody said 128 small businesses, including motels, coffee shops, convenience stores, rafting companies and greenhouses from Bethel to Bangor, have joined the organization and are “unanimously against” the east-west highway project. In general, he said business owners he has spoken to oppose the highway roughly 5 to 1.

Assistant House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, also expressed concern that a new private highway would damage the economy in Skowhegan and neighboring towns by causing truckers and tourists to bypass those communities.

Opponents also asked for more information about the project.

“We need so many answers to questions about where the route is, what the studies of impacts on the communities will be and who’s behind it,” McGowan said.

Cianbro, a Pittsfield-based construction company, has yet to release information about the corridor’s proposed route because its plans are fluid and changing on a regular basis, company representatives have said. The company is not obligated to release information because it is a private entity. During an April 2 meeting with Penobscot County commissioners, Vigue said Cianbro hopes to release a proposed route near the end of this year. He has consistently said eminent domain will not be required to acquire land for the project.

The bills before the Transportation Committee on Tuesday deal with funding, public disclosure and oversight of planning for the east-west highway, including a Maine Department of Transportation feasibility study of the proposal. In March 2012, Gov. Paul LePage signed a bill authorizing MDOT to spend $300,000 for such a study.

At the behest of Sen. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley, LePage agreed in August 2012 to put the brakes on that study. Thomas, an early legislative proponent of the project, said he asked the governor to suspend the study at the request of some of his constituents, who feared that they could lose their land to the project. During this legislative session, Thomas submitted a bill proposing an amendment to the Maine Constitution to restrict the use of eminent domain, but that bill died after receiving a 12-2 “ought not to pass” recommendation from the Judiciary Committee.

During a public hearing last month on McCabe’s bill to lift confidentiality protections from public-private partnerships for transportation projects such as the east-west highway, Bruce Van Note, deputy commissioner of the Maine Department of Transportation, told the Transportation Committee that the department had spent “a few thousand dollars in staff time” to prepare requests for proposals to conduct the feasibility study, but that no satisfactory proposal was received.

Environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and Natural Resources Council of Maine, submitted written testimony for the hearings that expressed concerns about the impact of a new east-west highway on wildlife habitat and shared reservations about whether a new highway would yield significant economic benefits for people who live along its route. They urged lawmakers to direct the Department of Transportation to focus on improving existing public roadways and other potential freight delivery options, including rail.

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