ST. STEPHEN, New Brunswick — Look at a map.
Cianbro Corp. President and CEO Peter Vigue said that’s all that is required to understand how vital construction of a proposed 220-mile east-west highway across northern Maine would be to the state’s long-term economic viability.
Vigue was the keynote speaker Thursday at a forum on the topic that attracted a standing-room-only crowd of more than 100 to a parish hall at St. Patrick’s Church in this New Brunswick community. Also speaking in support of the concept were current Maine Department of Transportation Commissioner David Bernhardt and his predecessor in that job, David Cole.
Bernhardt said DOT’s mission includes supporting economic opportunity by strategically targeting transportation investments that will help grow Maine’s economy. He termed the east-west highway project “a gateway to opportunity.”
Bernhardt said Gov. Paul LePage is a big supporter of the project and is expected to quickly sign new legislation approved by lawmakers this week appropriating $300,000 from a DOT reserve account to fund what Bernhardt termed Thursday an “investment-grade study needed to see if there is someone in the private sector willing to invest in this project.” Bernhardt said the study is expected to be completed before the end of this year.
“We have public-private partnership legislation in place,” he said, “but private investors will have to step up.”
Should the corridor be built, investors will repay the $300,000 in state funding spent to undertake the study. Private-sector investments in the project would be recouped through toll collection.
As a teenager working for Cianbro, Vigue helped to build portions of Interstate 95. For many years now he has been the point man and an active cheerleader for the east-west highway initiative. He said Thursday that, with an improving economy, he’s convinced the task of finding private-sector venture capital to bankroll the $2 billion undertaking is becoming more and more doable.
Vigue said those fiscal stars were nearly aligned in 2006 but that negotiations were suspended when the economy took a nosedive in 2008. “We’re now reigniting those relationships,” he said.
Vigue said a look at a map shows that Maine is within a one-day’s drive of 40 percent of the population of North America. He also noted that Atlantic ports in New England and Atlantic Canada are ideally suited to accommodate the next generation of cargo container ships, some of which are being designed to handle as many as 20,000 containers. Given congestion in West Coast ports such as Long Beach, Calif., Vigue sees the big ships coming through the Suez Canal for unloading at Atlantic ports built to accommodate ships that are as long as 1,000 feet and require ports that are at least 70 feet deep.
“I believe that Atlantic Canada will see a very significant transshipment facility being located in Nova Scotia in the next 10 years,” he said. “That’s already being planned.”
Such a facility will need links to rail and truck transportation that will deliver products to highly populated areas in America’s “rust belt” and the Midwest and to major Canadian cities such as Montreal and Toronto.
“Maine is not at the end of the road, but in the middle of the road,” Vigue said. “This is a very significant opportunity to attract investment to this region.”
Not everyone who came to St. Stephen for Thursday’s forum thinks the corridor is a good idea. Marching in front of the church hall with signs protesting the project were Sidney Mitchell and Peter Brenc, both from Dover-Foxcroft.
Brenc is concerned about the ecological damage such a project would entail and does not agree with characterizations that the route is sited in little more than “the hollow middle of Maine.” He’s also concerned that a public-private partnership would allow the use of eminent domain procedures, which allow governmental entities to acquire private property for public works projects, even if owners don’t want to sell.
“This route runs through some deeply rural areas,” Mitchell said. “This is a through corridor that connects New Brunswick and Quebec. It has nothing to do with Maine.”