May 27, 2012

As Vigue stumps for highway project, foes follow

Despite personal threats, Cianbro Corp.'s chairman says he has no plans to abandon his quest for an East-West Highway in Maine.

By Tux Turkel
Staff Writer

Peter Vigue is used to freely jetting around North America in search of economic opportunities. In recent months, though, he has felt it necessary to bring along a private security team when he drives to Dover-Foxcroft, Lincoln and Augusta.

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The East-West Highway is the latest take on a cross-Maine transportation route that dates back to the 1930s.

Maine was settled largely along north-south rivers, and the highways that now connect its major cities follow geography. What’s missing, many business leaders and politicians believe, is an east-west road that can act as a shorter route for Canadian goods moving between Maritime seaports and Quebec.

That could transform Maine into a trade gateway, they say, rather than an obstacle to drive around. And it would offer economic opportunities to struggling rural communities along the way.

This idea has long resonated with Peter Vigue, Cianbro Corp.’s chairman and chief executive, who grew up poor in northern Maine and rose to lead one of Maine’s largest and most successful businesses.

But after decades of watching failed attempts to gain public funding, Vigue decided a different approach was needed. In 2007, he introduced his plan for a private toll road. The idea faded during the recession, but was revived last winter, bolstered by a $300,000 state loan that was championed by the Republican-controlled Legislature and the administration of Gov. Paul LePage.

Vigue is the chairman and chief executive officer of Pittsfield-based Cianbro Corp., one of the East Coast's largest industrial contractors. Now Vigue, 65, is pursuing what might be the most ambitious project in his long career -- a 230-mile toll highway crossing the state from Calais to Coburn Gore.

At an estimated cost of $2 billion, the East-West Highway would be among the most expensive projects in Maine history. And if early reactions are a sign, it also could spark one of the state's most-heated development battles.

Despite its economic promise, some people don't like the East-West Highway. They dislike it enough, Vigue says, to threaten him personally and make him fear for the safety of his work force. That's why he travels with bodyguards to speaking engagements about the highway plan.

"I have enough information to recognize that we're a target," he said last week. "There are organizations and people that want to discourage us from going forward."

Vigue wouldn't elaborate on the threats. A search of Maine State Police data, requested by the Maine Sunday Telegram, failed to turn up a record of complaints by Vigue to the agency. Vigue said that's because he has purposely chosen not to contact police about the threats, but to take other actions that he considers appropriate.

"I live in a very proactive world, not a reactive world," he said.

Security is bound to be in place Thursday, when Vigue will be in Dover-Foxcroft to make his first large public presentation on the proposed project.

Opponents are using the event to hold a rally that's expected to draw hundreds of people. And they won't only be tree huggers, according to Chris Buchanan, an organizer for Defending Water for Life in Maine.

Buchanan is working to form a statewide coalition to fight the project. The highway plan is touching a nerve with people angry about corporate takeovers, landowner rights, globalization and loss of local control, she said.

"Our strategy is to bring everybody on board," she said. "Republicans. Democrats. Tea party. Libertarians. Anarchists."

Buchanan said she's not aware of anyone intimidating Vigue. But the fact that a project in such an early stage is generating so much friction is noteworthy, according to Pete Didisheim, advocacy director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

"There's not a project of this scale that could go forward without it becoming a major lightning rod," he said.

The council, Maine's leading environmental group, is expressing concern about the proposal, but hasn't formally joined the opposition. If the plan moves ahead, Didisheim said he expects a political and legal battle that will play out over five to 10 years.

That time line makes the highway reminiscent of other protracted controversies: Plum Creek's development plan around Moosehead Lake, which took eight years and a tussle at the state's highest court to win final approval this year, and the failed referendums in the 1980s aimed at shutting the Maine Yankee nuclear plant, which owners closed in 1996 for economic reasons.

But those battles were more place-centered. The East-West Highway covers more ground. Symbolically, Didisheim said, it slices the state in half with a private, limited-access roadway that could block wildlife passage and encourage sprawl.

"Two-hundred and thirty miles of pavement across Maine's North Woods, the signature landscape of the state of Maine, that's a big deal," he said.

Vigue also thinks it's a big deal, but for different reasons. He sees the highway making Maine a gateway for international trade across eastern Canada.

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