BANGOR, Maine — Given its location, if Maine is to prosper in the evolving global economy, it must take advantage of every potential opportunity that it can.
And when it comes to competing, the state needs to address some major shortcomings in terms of getting goods and products to major markets in the Midwest and such major Canadian cities as Montreal, Cianbro Corp. Chairman and CEO Peter Vigue said Thursday during an address to movers and shakers in the forest products industry.
The solution, as Vigue sees it, is the proposed east-west highway, which has been talked about for decades. The effort to get the private toll highway built recently got a boost when Vigue decided to lead the charge.
Vigue spoke about the proposed toll highway at the Sea Dog Banquet & Conference Center at the invitation of the Forest Resources Association, a national organization that represents all segments of the wood fiber supply chain, including landowners, land managers, wood suppliers, wood buyers and others, according to its website.
Joel Swanton, northeast regional manager for the association, said association officials thought it would be a good idea to invite Vigue to speak because many of the association’s Maine members had questions about the project and its potential effects on their industry.
Vigue said the people behind the state’s forest resources industry
could be important allies in the project.
“One of the things I enjoy the most is when people come together to work together and collaborate to enhance and improve their industry, and that is something that is badly needed in the state,” he said. “You folks do it on a routine basis and I compliment you for it, particularly in an industry that is so important in this state and has such a rich history — and I believe a history that will be around for a long, long time to come.”
According to Vigue, one only need look at a map of North America to understand how vital the 220-mile highway across Maine would be to the state’s long-term economic viability.
The Georgia-Pacific Corp. mill in Old Town and the Lemforder plant in Brewer are just two of the many major employers that have left Maine in recent years.
The reason, Vigue says, is simple: “The cost of transportation costs and the cost of energy.”
Vigue said that one association member told him that evening that it cost $1 a mile to transport wood.
“That is a big deal considering where we live and where we’re located,” he said.
Those are some of the reasons why Vigue says he is leading the effort to get the highway built.
Proposed is a 220-mile toll road that would run a fairly straight shot from Calais due west to Coburn Gore, Vigue said. The road would be built on private rights-of-way, would run below the proposed “Restore” national park area and avoid existing protected natural resources.
Despite some questions about potential new costs to the industry, such as toll costs, there was virtually no opposition to the planned road during Thursday’s meeting.
The highway, however, is not universally supported.
Earlier this month, the Piscataquis County town of Monson became the first Maine municipality to impose a six-month moratorium on privately owned highways and utility corridors. The vote to that end was unanimous — 47 to 0.
Anti-east-west highway signs also have been popping up in Dover-Foxcroft and other nearby communities. Some concerns cited by foes include fears that land will be taken by eminent domain and potential adverse environmental effects — concerns Vigue has been working to allay.
“We have no intention of taking people’s property, we have no intention of impacting people in a negative manner,” he told association members Thursday night. “All I ask you to do is this: Look at our track record. Look at how we treat our people. Look at how we treat Maine companies and look at our history,” he said referring to Cianbro Corp.’s history in Maine.
While Vigue spoke to forest resources association members in the Sea Dog’s Penobscot Room, about a dozen protesters outside held up signs decrying the project.
The rally was organized by Friends of Piscataquis Valley, which is part of a larger coalition called Stop the East-West Corridor, said Sidney Mitchell of Dover-Foxcroft, a founding member of the former group.
“Our effort is all around the goal of no corridor, no compromise. We don’t want to mitigate, we don’t want to compromise with these people. They’re just into speculative profiteering and they will take this state.”
Mitchell called the proposed highway a “four-lane trucking route from Canada to Canada. Just that physical abomination is going to wipe out our entire area. Southern Piscataquis [County], northern Penobscot [County], all those highly populated rural areas will be destroyed by this.”
Another issue Vigue addressed Thursday was whether Canadian companies had more to gain from the road than Maine companies.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re in Maine or in Canada. We’re all facing the same challenges” he said.
Asked about the time frame for the project, Vigue said plans call for lining up financial resources in the next nine months to a year. The next step, the design and right-of-way acquisition phase, is expected to take another three years and construction, three more years.