AUGUSTA — The difficulty of east-west travel across central Maine – the classic you-can’t-get-there-from-here problem in this large, mostly rural state – could be solved by a privately owned toll highway, advocates told lawmakers Tuesday.

State Sen. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley, is sponsoring legislation to require the state to spend $300,000 for a new feasibility study of an east-west highway. The idea of a roughly 230-mile highway running from Calais to Coburn Gore has been around for more than 40 years, as evidenced by a 1969 study by the Maine State Highway Commission. Back then, it was projected to cost $450 million.

Today, it could cost $1 billion to $2 billion, according to the Maine Department of Transportation. The state – Gov. Paul LePage included – wants to pay for a feasibility study that could be used to entice private investors to put up money for the project.

“We need new, innovative ways of funding transformational projects,” said Bruce Van Note, the state’s deputy transportation commissioner. “There’s going to have to be a new way to skin the cat.”

Van Note said the MDOT has money in its planning budget to pay for the study, and the agency would look for an independent firm to do it. He stressed the importance of hiring someone who would have no future financial interest in the project.

Thomas, who described his Senate district as “one of the poorest” in Maine, said the study is needed to show investors that the “business model is sound.” After years of hoping the state or federal government could afford to build the highway, he said, it’s time to embrace the idea of private funding.

Thomas thanked Cianbro President Peter Vigue for “keeping the idea alive.” Vigue, who runs the state’s largest construction company, has championed the project for years. On Tuesday, he showed slides to the Legislature’s Transportation Committee illustrating why he believes so strongly in the project.

While several people testified in favor of the bill, others turned out to oppose it.

Chris Buchanan, organizer of Defending Water for Life in Maine, said her group objects to the use of public money to study the feasibility of a private project.

The group believes the road would be used mostly by Canadian trucking companies, not Maine people. And the group is worried about environmental effects, noting that even though the route is still undetermined, it would likely cross woodlands and three major rivers.

“There’s a reason people live here,” Buchanan said. “If they wanted to live in a place with a thruway with transport trucks, they would live there.”

Diane Messer of Liberty said the state should look to expand rail access, not build more roads that would encourage greater use of fossil fuels.

“I think it’s a travesty,” she said. “We are violating what we need to do to ensure our health and well-being.”

Supporters of the bill included the Associated General Contractors of Maine and the Maine Motor Transport Association.

“The proposed private road, as laid out by those advocating for the east-west highway, would give trucking companies the opportunity to save hundreds of miles of travel utilizing the planned alternative route, as opposed to taking current routes of travel,” said Tim Doyle, vice president of the transport association.

Maine Audubon testified neither for nor against the bill, but urged the committee to consider possible environmental effects early in the process.

“Quite simply, the impact on some wildlife is disastrous,” Jenn Gray of Maine Audubon said in written testimony.

The committee is scheduled to hold a work session on the bill at 1 p.m. Thursday.

 

MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at: [email protected]