DEXTER, Maine — Just before walking into Saturday’s sometimes heated public forum about the proposed east-west highway, Ripley resident Gordon Canning stopped to find his property on a Maine map that had a rough estimate of the corridor drawn in a thick red line.
The path of the proposed corridor, for instance, is “one of the things we don’t know for sure,” Canning said.
Unanswered questions about secret agendas and big money seemed to be the biggest concern at the public gathering, which included shouts of anger and also vocal support for leaving the region alone or ideas in opposition of the project.
The crowd of 200 or so — most opposed to the road construction project — gathered at the Ridgeview Community School for the forum, dubbed the “civil discourse party” by Sam Brown of the Dexter Dover Area Towns in Transition, a group that sponsored the event.
The 220-mile privately funded toll highway favored by Vigue, chairman and CEO of Cianbro Corp., gained state funding for a $300,000 feasibility study in early April that is expected to be finished in January.
The $2 billion roadway 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 has six interchanges in Maine and from the border, it is only about 60 miles to Trans Canada Highway Route 10 near Sherbrooke — with connections to Buffalo, Detroit and other Midwest destinations — and to Trans Canada Highway Route 73 to Beauceville, located south of Quebec City.
The planned highway through rural Maine is “an abomination,” said Sidney Mitchell, Dover-Foxcroft resident and central region coordinator for the Stop the East-West Corridor coalition. “We live here because of the beauty.”
Residents at the forum also wanted to know if the proposed highway would include other utilities, such as an oil pipeline running underneath; who the deep-pocket investors behind the plan are; why there are not more alternative models on the table; and what are the biggest drawbacks and benefits of moving forward with a privately funded roadway.
“This east-west highway is a big deal,” said Dave Pearson, a Democrat who is running for state Representative for District 24, and was one of eight candidates who attended the forum. “If it’s built, it’s going to profoundly change the lives in eastern Maine. There is no turning back.”
Sue Mackay-Andrews, a Piscataquis County Commissioners candidate, said she hasn’t made up her mind about the project but asked the crowd about other options.
She asked, “If not this, then what” can be done to improve the region’s economy?
“Is there an opportunity to bring jobs to Maine?” and “What are the environmental issues?” are two questions Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, the lone Republican on the forum panel to show up, said he hopes the feasibility study answers. “I want to see what the studies say. I want answers” before any decisions are made.
Hilary Lister, of the Stop the East-West Corridor coalition, said she has watched as industries such as Dexter Shoe have left the area, taking people along with them, but added those who left are slowly coming back to Maine.
“More and more people I know are moving back into the state and they’re moving back because its not developed,” she said, adding later that, “I don’t see what’s in it for the local people.”
Democrat Herbert Clark, who is running for the District 27 Senate seat, said in his 24 years as a state lawmaker, he has never seen a “bill go through so fast,” referring to the feasibility study bill, and said, if elected, he’ll work to repeal it.
While most of the 21 people who stood up and spoke at the meeting opposed any type of highway, two said people should work toward guiding the plan to suit the needs of the individual communities.
“Development is coming. How we guide it is up to us,” said Dover-Foxcroft resident David Twitchell.
Vigue has said that since the project is privately funded, eminent domain is not allowed and will not be used to acquire land for the project, which means the exact route is in flux until the land is under contract.