Monday, March 10, 2014
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AT A GLANCE
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.
The highway plan also has drawn the attention of a mainstream, national environmental group with a presence in Maine, the Sierra Club.
"We've had a steady barrage of email, mostly from people in that area, asking us to get involved," said Karen Woodsum, the club's senior regional representative.
The Maine chapter has 4,000 members. It has begun raising money for an independent study of the highway's impact. It also wants to examine whether a rail line that crosses Maine north of the route could be a less-intrusive alternative.
Members of these groups and others are expected to converge outside Foxcroft Academy by 4 p.m. Thursday. Participants are being asked to wear hunter-orange clothing.
Vigue's public presentation is set to begin inside the school gym at 6 p.m. He'll be joined by state Sen. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley, who championed the plan in the Legislature.
Vigue is likely to address four points that he says opponents are distorting.
• First: The highway would pass between Dover-Foxcroft and Dexter, which is well south of Maine's North Woods.
• Second: It would have six on-and-off ramps -- at Calais, Interstate 95, and routes 15, 23, 201 and 16/27. A Machias ramp also is being considered. Vigue has declined to provide an exact route west of the Penobscot, fearful that opponents will organize affected landowners against the project.
• Third: An existing, 2,000-foot right-of-way along the Stud Mill Road, which is used to haul timber in eastern Maine, would narrow to 500 feet after it crosses the Penobscot River. And the highway would have innovative, forested overpasses for wildlife to cross.
• Fourth: The venture would be privately owned and funded and wouldn't use eminent domain to take land.
Vigue knows these explanations won't satisfy committed opponents. He said he's prepared for a drawn-out, Plum Creek-type campaign that could take years and millions of dollars.
"I have to be," he said. "I don't have any plans to give up."
Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at: