AUGUSTA — The state senator who led the push for a study of an east-west highway across Maine has asked Gov. Paul LePage to suspend the study until the Legislature can enact protections for property owners.
Sen. Douglas Thomas, R-Ripley, said Monday that he underestimated the fear and opposition among residents who live in the potential path of the highway.
Thomas is running for re-election. His opponent, Rep. Herb Clark, D-Millinocket, co-sponsored the study bill but has since backed off from his support.
“I’ve got so many constituents who are convinced it’s coming right through their living room,” Thomas said. “I’m out campaigning door to door and people are upset. … I didn’t think we’d be stepping into this kind of hornets’ nest.”
Thomas met with LePage on Friday, and the governor was still considering the request Monday, his spokeswoman said.
“The governor has supported the east-west highway project since day one, and that has not changed,” said Adrienne Bennett. “At the same time, the governor acknowledges Sen. Thomas’ concerns and recognizes there may be potential issues here.”
It wasn’t clear Monday whether LePage could delay the study, or for how long. The Maine Department of Transportation is still in the initial fact-finding stage of the study, Bennett said.
The idea of a highway from Calais to Maine’s western border has been studied and debated for decades. Thomas and LePage championed the idea earlier this year, saying a privately built toll road across northern Maine would create jobs and improve commerce between Maine and Canada.
The Republican-led Legislature passed a law calling for a $300,000 feasibility study, the first step toward potential construction of the project.
Democrats and conservation groups led the opposition to the study, saying the project would carry large costs for the state and would mostly benefit Canada, by connecting the Maritimes to Quebec.
A specific route for the highway has not been identified, but many residents in northern Maine fear they would be in its path and would be forced to move. Leaders of the effort have promised repeatedly that the state would not force property owners to sell their homes or their land.
“We thought it had been addressed. It has been addressed, but not adequately,” Thomas said.
Thomas said he still supports the study and believes in the benefits of the highway, but wants to move forward without residents having to fear for their homes in the meantime.
Thomas has filed a legislative proposal, L.R. 95, that would protect property owners from having their land or homes taken through eminent domain for private purposes. The state can use eminent domain to force property owners to sell at current market prices if it is in the public interest.
Because Thomas’ proposal involves a change to Maine’s Constitution, it would require two-thirds approval by the Legislature and the approval of voters in a referendum.
LePage supports private property rights, but it’s too soon to say whether he would support a constitutional amendment, Bennett said.
Peter Vigue, CEO of Cianbro Corp., who has been the most vocal private-sector supporter of the project, said Monday that a delay is understandable.
Cianbro is expected to bid for construction work if the highway is built, although Vigue has said the project is needed no matter who gets the work.
“Specific routing has yet to be identified and we are continuing to work on that. As a result of that, I believe we can respect and understand where Sen. Thomas is coming from,” Vigue said.
Vigue said the opposition and potential delay do not mean the highway idea will once again be shelved. “The silent majority has not weighed in on this project,” he said.
Rep. Edward Mazurek, D-Rockland, said he hopes the study will be put on hold indefinitely because he never saw big economic benefits in the project.
“They may have seen that to rush into this without the general support of the people of Maine is not what they really want to do,” he said. “To change the Constitution, I mean, that’s a big, big step. It’s very difficult to do. It’s very costly, and I don’t think it’s worth it.”
Rep. Clark, the Democrat who is running for Thomas’ Senate seat, said he signed on as a co-sponsor of the study legislation because it seemed like a good economic development idea at the time.
He blames Thomas for not first lining up support from local leaders and voters.
“We thought he had done his homework, and come to find out he didn’t,” Clark said.
Clark said he hears about the highway constantly as he campaigns. “In Piscataquis County, this is the big issue.”
If lawmakers from northern Maine knew how upset local voters would be, the study probably wouldn’t have been approved, Clark said.
He said he now supports halting the study and not spending $300,000 on the idea.
“I don’t think the state should even be involved with it,” Clark said.
Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at: