AUGUSTA — The difficulty of traveling from east to west in central Maine – the classic “you can’t get there from here” dilemma in a large, mostly rural state – could be solved by a new, privately owned toll highway, advocates told lawmakers today.

Sen. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley, is sponsoring legislation to require the state to spend $300,000 on a new feasibility study of an east-west highway.

The idea of a highway that runs roughly from Calais to Coburn Gore has been around for more than 40 years, as evidenced by a 1969 study by the Maine State Highway Commission. Back then, it was estimated to cost $450 million.

Today, it could cost $1 billion-$2 billion, according to the Maine Department of Transportation. That’s why the state – Gov. Paul LePage included – wants to pay for a feasibility study to that can be used to entice private investors to put up money for the project.

“We need new innovative ways of funding transformational projects,” said Bruce Van Note, deputy DOT commissioner. “There’s going to have to be a new way to skin the cat.”

Van Note said the DOT has money in its planning budget to pay for the study. He said the DOT will look to hire an independent firm to conduct the review, stressing the importance of hiring someone who will have no future interest in making money from the project.

Thomas, who described his Senate district as “one of the poorest” in Maine, said the study is necessary to show investors that the “business model is sound.” After years of hoping the state or federal government could afford to build the highway, he said it’s time to embrace the idea of private funding.

He thanked Cianbro Corp. President Peter Vigue for “keeping the idea alive.” Vigue, who runs the state’s largest construction company, has championed the project for years and presented the Legislature’s Transportation Committee with slides showing why he believes so strongly in the project.

Yet while several people testified in favor of the bill, others came to the State House to oppose it.

Chris Buchanan, organizer of Defending Water for Life in Maine, said her group objects to the use of public funds to study the feasibility of a private project.

The group believes the road will be used mostly by Canadian trucking companies, not Maine people. Also, the group is worried about environmental impacts, noting that while the route is still undetermined, it will likely cross three major rivers and woodlands.

“There’s a reason people live here,” she said. “If they wanted to live in a place with a thruway with transport trucks, they would live there.”

Diane Messer of Liberty said the state should look to expand rail access, not build more roads that will encourage greater use of fossil fuels.

“I think it’s a travesty,” she said. “Its’ not business as usual. It is not a matter of making a dollar. We are violating what we need to do to ensure our health and well-being.”

Supporters included the Associated General Contractors of Maine and the Maine Motor Transport Association.

“The proposed private road as laid out by those advocating for the east-west highway would give trucking companies the opportunity to save hundreds of miles of travel utilizing the planned alternative route, as opposed to taking current routes of travel,” said Tim Doyle, vice president of the transport association.

Maine Audubon offered testimony neither for nor against, but urged the committee to consider possible environmental impacts early in the process.

“Quite simply, the impact on some wildlife is disastrous,” said Jenn Gray in written testimony.

The committee is scheduled to hold a work session at 1 p.m. Thursday.

MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at: [email protected]