AUGUSTA, Maine — Without debate, the Maine House on Wednesday approved a bill that would provide public funding to study the feasibility of an east-west highway.
The Maine Senate already approved the bill last week in a party-line vote, but it still requires additional votes in the Senate because of a minor last-minute amendment — one that could help ensure final bipartisan passage.
Offered by Rep. Richard Cebra, R-Naples, the House chairman of the Transportation Committee, the amendment stipulates that once final authorization is given to construct a highway, the developer would reimburse the Department of Transportation for the estimated $300,000 study.
“This allows the state to still spend the money because it’s vitally important that the state is behind the steering wheel on this project,” Cebra said Wednesday after the vote. “So, we get to keep control of the study now and if and when the project occurs, the developer pays the state back. That’s a good compromise.”
The amendment is likely to alleviate any fears of Democrats in the House and Senate.
During the debate before last week’s 19-15 vote in the Senate, Democrats said they were not opposed to the concept of a new study. But they didn’t want to commit public funds for what would be a privately financed project.
Republicans countered that private investors already are lined up to fund this project, which many feel could be an economic boon for Maine, but those investors need assurance that the state is supportive before they can proceed.
Money for the “investor grade” study, to be conducted by an independent agency, would come from the Maine Department of Transportation’s highway fund.
The idea for an east-west highway that bisects Maine has been floated for decades but movement has always stalled because no one wanted to put up the money to build it.
Cebra said the idea has been studied significantly over the years but he believes this new study will settle the matter once and for all.
At a public hearing last month, Cianbro Corp. Chairman Peter Vigue, a longtime proponent of an east-west highway, said he has been actively recruiting investors and has been talking to Canadian officials as well.
Vigue predicted that the highway would be a huge asset for companies — including his own firm — that move goods from Maine and Canada to the rest of the country.
The exact route of a proposed highway to connect New Brunswick to New Hampshire or Quebec would be part of the study.
Some environmentalists testified in opposition to the bill on the basis that it would increase pollution and lead to more burning of fossil fuels. Representatives of Maine’s railway transportation system also opposed the bill.