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 tturkel@pressherald.com
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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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.

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.

Vigue feels passionately about this potential, and he's a man with the political and business connections, and the personal drive, to make unlikely things happen in Maine: Who expected Portland to build semi-submersible oil rigs for Brazil, or Brewer to send modular steel frames to nickel mines in Newfoundland?

But this project will take more than vision and top management skills. It will need broad public and political support. To get that, Vigue has been stumping like a politician, making presentations to business leaders and development officials along the proposed route.

As he speaks, he is followed by a small but growing collection of opponents. They hold up signs with messages such as "Vigue's dream is our nightmare" and protest outside the closed events.

But according to Vigue, critics have gone beyond protesting. He said he has received specific threats that have convinced him that his personal safety is at risk. Protesters, he said, also have confronted business people leaving these meetings with shouting and profanity.

"Their tactics are becoming more and more unprofessional," he said. "It's not the way we do things in Maine."

Vigue blames extreme environmentalists, who he says are coming to Maine from other states to fight the highway. He says they are affiliated with national groups that oppose energy, mining and highway projects elsewhere.

"Maine has become a battleground state," he said.

In late March, Vigue traveled across the border at Calais to St. Stephen, New Brunswick, to make his pitch to Canadian business leaders. He was accompanied by Maine's transportation commissioner, David Bernhardt.

Vigue said he had reason to believe that he might be followed by people who were threatening him. According to Vigue, he was told that Canadian border agents denied access to some people who lacked proper identification or were on an "ecoterrorist" watch list. He declined to say how he became aware of this.

This revelation is of interest to Pete Brenc, who lives in Dover-Foxcroft and owns 75 acres of farmland in Atkinson.

Brenc is a spokesman for the Friends of Piscataquis Valley, one of the ad hoc groups forming to fight the highway. He and his wife have been protesting Vigue's talks, and he was in St. Stephen when a police car started following him.

"The police asked me, 'Where are you going; where are the rest of you?' " Brenc said.

Brenc is retired and moved to town seven years ago. He worries about the highway running near his farmland. Brenc said he has never threatened anyone, but based on the anger and anxiety he's hearing, he's not surprised if someone has told Vigue to back off.

"We hear from a lot of people saying they're armed," he said. "People feel this in their chests. I'm not a warrior, but I do believe people did call (Vigue) on the phone."

Vigue's charges seem less plausible to Buchanan, organizer of the anti-highway coalition. She said protesters have been "respectful," and she hasn't witnessed any yelling or cursing. She's also not aware of out-of-state extremists threatening violence in Maine.

Buchanan's group is a chapter of a national "populist movement" called the Alliance for Democracy. It sponsors water-protection chapters in Oregon, Washington and California. Buchanan's group emerged in Maine to fight expansion plans by Poland Spring, the bottled-water subsidiary of Nestle.

But Buchanan, who has lived in Belgrade for six years, said her highway-fighting efforts are based solely in Maine.

She's trying to coordinate local anti-highway groups, including Friends of Piscataquis Valley and Stop the Corridor; wind power foes, such as Friends of Boundary Mountains and Forest Ecology Network; and activists with a looser presence in Maine, including the Occupy movement and Earth First!

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:

tturkel@pressherald.com

 

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