AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage said Tuesday that he will slow down plans to conduct a publicly funded study of a proposed east-west highway across Maine.

His decision came one day after state Sen. Douglas Thomas, R-Ripley, said he was seeking to suspend the feasibility study because he underestimated the fear and opposition among residents who live in the potential path of the highway.

The Maine Department of Transportation will continue collecting information about the proposal for a privately operated toll road, but won’t take any immediate action.

“The east-west highway is an idea that’s been around for a dozen years and that’s what it is, an idea,” LePage said in a prepared statement. “We must explore the facts and go on a fact-finding mission, and that is what the state is doing. Right now, we need to decide where we want to put an east-west highway, is it feasible, and what would the costs be.”

The estimated $300,000 for the study was to come from the MDOT’s budget. The study would be the first step toward potential construction of the toll road from Calais to Maine’s western border at Coburn Gore.

Thomas said Monday that he still supports the study and believes in the benefits of the highway, but wants to move forward without having residents fear for their homes.

He 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.

Peter Vigue, chairman of Cianbro Corp. and the driving force behind a private toll road, said Monday that he understands the concerns.

“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,” said Vigue, who hopes his company will be the project’s contractor.

Transportation Commissioner David Bernhardt agreed with LePage that the concerns of Thomas and others are valued.

“Our job, of course, is to conduct the economic feasibility study in a fair and responsible manner,” Bernhardt said.

Staff Writer Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

erussell@mainetoday.com

Twitter: @PPHEricRussell