AUGUSTA — Small Maine businesses that are worried a proposed east-west highway would siphon away cross-state traffic that is their lifeline made a stand Tuesday in support of six bills aimed at slowing down or killing the $2 billion project.
The Transportation Committee’s hearing came a year after the Legislature allocated $300,000 for a feasibility study, which has since been suspended. The bills advanced Tuesday include measures to bar the use of public funds for a study by a private firm and to repeal a law calling for a feasibility study on the highway.
Other bills direct the Department of Transportation to study the use of existing highways and railroads as options for an east-west transport route, require an independent analysis of the project to be paid for with private funds, bar the use of public land for a privately owned east-west highway, and create a study commission with members from the proposed highway corridor to oversee further study on an east-west highway.
Plans call for a 220-mile, four-lane toll highway between Calais and Coburn Gore, which would provide a direct route across the state and connect the Canadian provinces of Quebec and New Brunswick. Project backers say the highway would bring economic benefits, including thousands of construction and maintenance jobs, and provide a direct route to Canadian and Midwestern points for Maine businesses.
But opponents say the new highway would draw away traffic on highways including U.S. Routes 1, 2 and 201 and state Route 9, which they now depend on for their businesses. Chuck Peabody, owner of a whitewater rafting company in The Forks, presented a list of 125 businesses oppose the project.
Peabody told the committee the names were collected with relative ease within three days. Besides outfitters, businesses represented included landscapers, motels, restaurants, car sales companies, grocers and a general store, among others.
“When you talk to these people and hear what they have to say, they’re universally against it,” Peabody said during a news conference before the hearing. He also joined numerous others to testify before the committee in favor of the bills, including former state Conservation Commissioner Patrick McGowan.
“Small businesses will have their businesses bypassed, entire communities will be bypassed,” said McGowan, adding that Maine already has an east-west highway in Route 2.
McGowan, who served in the Legislature from 1980 to 1990, said a number of similar proposals have been presented and rejected since 1937. The latest represents “the single largest destruction of wildlife habitat ever proposed in this state by a private entity,” McGowan said.
Opponents of the bills urged caution in considering the legislation. Scott Lever of the Associated General Contractors of Maine warned the bills could have further than anticipated impacts on public and private projects.
“It’s our belief that the viability of the project and the state’s approval process for construction projects will be vetted in due course,” Lever told the committee.
John Melrose of the Maine Better Transportation Association and a former Maine transportation commissioner said his organization was neutral on some bills, but opposed one that would bar the use of private resources for the highway, saying it would be unwise to eliminate from future consideration the notion of privatization in transportation projects.
The Maine Municipal Association opposed the bill to set up a commission to study the project. MMA’s Kate Dufour said creating commissions to oversee unpopular developmental proposals in the future “will have a chilling effect on future business development and ingenuity.”