Legislature votes to study feasibility of a private East-West highway
The dream of an east-west highway has long been a public darling in Maine, but the quest to find state and federal funding for the project has proven elusive. Enter Cianbro President Peter Vigue and a plan to build a private east-west toll road.
That plan got its day in the headlines on February 14 when Vigue and other proponents of the toll highway testified before the Maine Legislature’s Joint Committee on Transportation in favor of L.D. 1671: Resolve, To Require the Department of Transportation to Facilitate and Oversee a Study of the Feasibility of an East-West Highway. The bill calls for $300,000 to fund an independent feasibility study facilitated by MaineDOT. The study will analyze traffic and revenue “to assess the feasibility of a privately funded, privately operated and publicly accessible east-west highway.” The bill was sponsored by Senator Doug Thomas (R-Somerset).
The public hearing was heavily attended, evidence that the proposal for a private tollway connecting Maine ports and cities with destinations in Canada, the Midwest and beyond is gaining attention from both supporters and detractors. Maine’s Governor Paul LePage is one of the proposal’s fans.
It has been estimated that it would cost $1-2 billion to build the 230-mile toll road.
Vigue for years has been the project’s fiercest advocate. He told the committee he believes that such a transport project could make Maine “the northeast trade gateway,” creating a quicker link between the Maritimes and Quebec and upstate New York, serving as an asset for companies that transport goods from Maine and Canada to other parts of the country. Additionally, says Vigue, the link would create growth in Maine’s “hollow middle” and would give tourists a quick way to reach northern and downeast Maine.
Vigue told the committee that many of Maine’s chronic economic challenges originate with the perception that there is lack of access to markets to Maine’s west and east. Our problems, he said, “are a matter of perception internally – and externally. The view is that we are at the end of the road, that we’re isolated, we have ice and snow, and if that doesn’t get you, the bears will.”
Among those testifying against the bill were environmental advocates, such as Chris Buchanan, an organizer for Defending Water for Life in Maine. Other detractors cited the budget shortfalls and questioned the wisdom of making the investment in a private venture when the state is cutting services to the poor.
Still, the yay-sayers took the day, and two days later, on February 16, the committee voted the bill out with eight members voting for the measure and five – all Democrats – against. Democrats on the committee had hoped for another week to clarify details regarding the scope, timing and whether $300,000 would be enough to accomplish the study’s goals.
“We just wanted a little more time to gather information,” said Senator Bill Diamond (D-Windham) who cast one of the dissenting votes. “We don’t know if $300,000 is enough. We’re not sure of the timing because this is not an emergency bill. We just wanted until next week to figure these things out.”
“This could create thousands of jobs over several years,” said Representative Richard Cebra (R-Naples), House chairman of the Transportation Committee. “There are investors already lined up; they really deserve a study they can have confidence in.”
The bill was amended in the House to include a provision to have the developer repay the state for the cost of the study if the project moves forward.
The revised bill passed in both the Maine House and Senate and was to be signed by the governor by press time.
FMI: To learn about the status of L.D. 1671 and other transportation related legislation under consideration by the Maine Legislature, visit www.mbtaonline.org and follow the links to “Pending Bills” on the MBTA’s Advocacy page.