AUGUSTA — Legislation seeking $300,000 in state money to do a feasibility study of a privately funded east-west highway across Maine, seen as a vital transportation link for industries engaged in agriculture, forest products and energy, won initial approval today in the state Senate.

The bill, LD 1671, passed 19-15 following a debate in which supporters said the project has potential to create hundreds of jobs as the $2 billion privately funded highway takes shape. The bill faces further House and Senate votes.

Opponents, however, warned that the $300,000 cost of a feasibility study could balloon by hundreds of thousands of dollars and others suggested that private investors, not taxpayers, should pay for the study.

The idea has come up in the past but gained new interest this time because it would rely on private, not government, funds for the construction costs. The roughly 230-mile highway would also be operated privately and maintained with tolls.

But some lawmakers were wary of the bill’s use of $300,000 in state Transportation Department money to pay for the study.

“Nothing in this resolve says it’ll be (limited to) $300,000. It could be higher,” said Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, adding the total “could be $400,000 or $500,000.”

Others questioned whether the highway, which would extend from New Brunswick in the east to Quebec in the west, is really needed.

“I’ve had very few people I represent speak to me about an east-west highway,” said Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, who represents a part of the state that’s highly dependent on logging. “I actually wonder if this is going to cut off northern Maine even more.”

Supporters of the bill defended the use of public funds for a study, saying it ensures the analysis is independent and not swayed by the interests of industries that could benefit from it.

Sen. Douglas Thomas, R-Ripley, who is sponsoring the bill, said the study would use money already in the Transportation Department budget from projects that won’t be done.

“We’ll probably save $300,000 on (snow) plowing this winter,” said Sen. Roger Smith, R-Houlton, as he pleaded for passage. “Please, please, don’t be scared to go about a big thing.”

The bill is supported by Gov. Paul LePage’s administration and several associations representing construction industries, and pulp and paper-making.