April 5, 2012

Maine governor signs east-west highway bill

The Associated Press

AUGUSTA —  Saying he sees an opportunity for improved commerce between Maine and Canada, Gov. Paul LePage on Thursday signed into law a bill setting aside $300,000 to study the feasibility of a privately funded highway connecting two Canadian provinces through Maine.

During a brief State House ceremony Thursday, the governor signed the bill and handed the pen to its chief sponsor, Republican Sen. Doug Thomas of Ripley. Thomas said it would likely be two years before the project, if it gets the go-ahead, would start.

The governor said he's been in communication with premiers of both New Brunswick and Quebec, which straddle the state, and "and they're very excited about this opportunity. It is good for commerce" between the United States and Canada, the governor said.

The idea of an "east-west highway" has been talked about for decades in the State House, and LePage said he's pleased to see legislation that brings the state closer to "a shovel in the ground" on the project.

Unlike past proposals, this one calls for private investors bankrolling the project, whose estimated cost is in the $2 billion range, and maintaining it with tolls paid by motorists. Much of the traffic would be Canadian truckers moving their products from the Maritime Provinces to Quebec and Midwestern points, proponents say.

The latest concept calls for a 220-mile highway extending from the Maine communities of Calais in the east to Coburn Gore at the border with Quebec.

The LePage administration joined construction, pulp and paper and other business groups in supporting the bill. One of its biggest boosters is Peter Vigue, chairman of Cianbro Corp., a Maine-based construction company with operations around the country.

The environmental group Defending Water for Life expressed concern that the highway would leave open to exploitation state resources including water, timber and gravel, without adding value to those goods. And some lawmakers said they were concerned that the $300,000 cost of the feasibility study —money the administration says is available — could mushroom by hundreds of thousands of dollars at a time state dollars are tight.

The bill's supporters answered the latter concern by amending the bill so private contractors investing in the project would have to pay the $300,000 back to the state if the highway's construction is approved.

The feasibility study, Thomas said, will basically answer whether construction of the highway is worth the investment. Thomas said the highway means much more than hundreds of construction jobs and an easier route for Canadian truckers.

"This road will connect central Maine to millions of new customers in Canada," Thomas said. "I hope that after decades of layoffs and business closings that this is the beginning of a more prosperous Maine."

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