Written by Crash Barry | The Portland Daily Sun
Try to picture a turnpike that cuts across the interior of Maine. A four-lane super-highway built through woodlands and bogs. A completely fenced-in, 220-mile private toll road, running along rivers, lakes and farms, then over mountains and ridgelines. Starting in Calais and ending at the Quebec border at Coburn Gore, the so-called “east-west corridor” is being pushed by Peter Vigue, head of Cianbro, the construction wing of Maine’s energy-speculation industrial complex.
Under Vigue’s plan, a steady parade of tired Canadian truckers hauling tandem trailers (or Irving tanker trucks filled with gas and diesel) from the Port of Saint John in New Brunswick will pay $125 to save two hours driving time en route to Quebec. These monster tandem trucks — measuring over a hundred feet long — aren’t currently permitted on Maine’s roads. But via Vigue’s private expressway, the Canadian trucks would be allowed to surpass American weight standards, all while traveling at 75 mph, the proposed speed limit.
Vigue never mentions the traffic from the west, however. Probably because he knows the image of truck convoys loaded with medical waste and sludge from Canada headed into central Maine would be unpopular with the locals. Yet under Vigue’s proposal, waste haulers transporting municipal and industrial biosolids will appreciate the short-cut to Casella Waste’s “New England Organics” mega-sludge processing facility in Kennebec County’s Unity Township. And if Vigue gets his right-of-ways, haulers of medical waste will be happy with the toll road’s proximity to the Juniper Ridge landfill in Old Town, owned by the state, but run by Casella.
The tolls from the truckers coming from both directions, though, won’t be enough to pay for the construction of the $2 billion road project. And since Vigue won’t even venture a guess on the fee for passenger vehicles, it’s doubtful revenue from tourist traffic will make a dent in the construction debt. That’s why the scheme is referred to as a “corridor” instead of a “highway.” Despite his public protestations to the contrary, Vigue’s fancy new website (eastwestme.com) admits the powerful truth: the road paves the future for utility and communications corporations to run lines from Canada into the heart of Maine. Big Wind and other energy giants will be glad to rent the private highway’s median as a way to link to the power grid. And once the roadwork is completed, then voilà, a ready-made path exists for a pipeline pumping oil sands to the Canadian Maritimes.
Environmental activist Hillary Lister, who lives in Athens in Somerset County, has observed Vigue’s efforts to turn his east-west pipe dream into a reality since 2007. It was at a conference in Bar Harbor featuring New England governors and eastern Canadian premiers when she first heard Vigue publicly mention the corridor.
“He said it was important to view Canadian companies as friends to Maine and not to treat them like enemies,” Lister recalls. “But his big reason for the road was that ‘there was no other plan’ to bring jobs to Maine.” Vigue went on to bemoan the loss of well-paying manufacturing jobs, specifically Dexter Shoes, that headed to China after being purchased by Warren Buffet’s Berkshire-Hathaway Corporation.
That argument struck a sour chord with Lister. She grew up in Dexter. The super-highway, if built, would be located about 10 miles to the north. How, she wonders, would a toll road help her hometown recover from the devastating shoe factory shutdown in 2001? These days, Dexter, like many of Maine’s former mill towns, is plagued by opiate abuse, unemployment, despair and empty brick buildings. It drives her crazy that Vigue goes around the state offering false hope and empty promises of jobs in order to secure support for the highway. After all, how many employment opportunities can truck stops and gas stations actually provide? Because wireless robots will collect the tolls at each of the six exits, so no humans need apply for those gigs.
But even more troubling, for Lister, is how Vigue’s pet road would dramatically increase the tonnage of out-of-state trash being shipped into Maine, where regulations for waste disposal are far less stringent than laws across New England and eastern Canada. And the situation is bound to get worse. Thanks to a new trash-for-gas and pipeline deal with U-Maine, Casella needs to import more and more waste to generate maximum amounts of methane from the Juniper Ridge landfill.
For years, as an activist, Lister has focused on the trash industry’s negative impact on Maine’s water supply and the environment. And now, as the state continues to grow as a dumping ground for other people’s garbage and gunk, she finds Vigue’s current push for the toll road particularly infuriating. So on July 14, she and others will be asking tough questions to a gaggle of political candidates at a forum in Dexter devoted to the proposed highway. Vigue has been invited to the event, but organizers haven’t heard back. Lister doubts he’ll attend.
“He doesn’t want to publicly deal with all the unanswered questions. Will this road cross the Appalachian Trail? What’s going to happen to the wildlife in this corridor?” Lister also doubts the road could be built for the two billion bucks Vigue claims. And she worries that if the project does start, cost overruns could turn the road into Maine’s version of Boston’s Big Dig. “They still don’t have financing for the project. Besides, even if they do get the money and the government’s approval, it’ll take a while. And then it’ll be at least another three years to build the road. And that’s an optimistic time frame. By then Vigue will be retired,” Lister says. “Maybe he’s just trying to set up construction projects for his son Andi Vigue who is now president and chief operating officer for Cianbro?”
Time and time again, Vigue has publicly denied that Cianbro has any interest in building the project. “We build bridges,” he’s been oft quoted, “not roads!”
Vigue is being disingenuous about Cianbro’s real business. Even a cursory exploration of cianbro.com shows the company’s deep involvement in many industries. They’ve built LNG terminals, wind farms, oil rigs, fuel pipelines and trash-burning plants. Their clients aren’t just in the energy sector. Cianbro fixed a giant paper machine for Great Northern, built a bottling plant for Poland Spring Water, constructed a half-million square foot micro-chip facility for National Semiconductor, helped repair the Pentagon after the 9-11 attacks and has worked with Casella on several projects. And that’s just a tiny fraction of the company’s global customer list.
It’s understandable why Lister and others don’t trust Vigue. Especially since the fella is known for his odd behavior and secrecy about project details. These days, for instance, Vigue appears at public events accompanied by a half-dozen bodyguards, claiming the thugs are necessary to prevent attacks by hippies and eco-terrorists who have allegedly threatened his safety. Plus Vigue is always rabidly defending his decision to keep the actual route of the highway confidential. He insists it’s the only way to prevent super-highway opponents from harassing landowners into not selling. At a recent Tea Party gathering, one of Vigue’s surrogates also implied the secrecy would help developers acquire land parcels cheaply, since sellers wouldn’t know the true value of their property as a potential segment of highway.
Despite support from Governor LePage and members of the Legislature, the highway isn’t a done deal, yet. Vigue still has to raise billions of bucks, followed by the tough task of convincing regulators that paving a new roadway through undeveloped land — and expanding existing logging roads — won’t hurt the environment. Even if he makes it past the bureaucrats, he’ll have to contend with court challenges and other actions by environmentalists. And by then, it’ll take more than Vigue’s six bodyguards to quell the angry mobs.
Whistleblowers should e-mail tips @ crashbarry.com. At 7 p.m., on Tuesday July 10, Crash Barry will be presenting “Tough Island: Live” at the Patten Free Library in Bath.