The problem in Maine is that most of its major roads run north-south. Very few run east-west, which makes traversing the state one long, slow slog.
Peter Vigue, the chairman and chief executive of the Cianbro Corporation, a large engineering and construction company based in Maine, is hoping to change that. He has proposed a $2 billion private toll road running 220 miles across the state.
He says it could make Maine a vital link in the global economy, speeding commerce across the Northeastern United States to markets in the Midwest, as well as help revitalize the lagging local economy.
The expansions of the Panama and Suez Canals make this highway even more urgent, he said in an interview last week. Bigger ships from around the world, carrying more cargo containers, will be looking for bigger, less congested ports on the East Coast, he said, and Maine already has one in Eastport.
The idea of an east-west highway has been kicking around for decades. But Mr. Vigue’s proposal stands a good chance of becoming reality. As such, it has struck a raw nerve within the Maine psyche and has prompted a fierce debate over the state’s brand, character and future.
Opponents say a major thoroughfare slicing through the state would destroy the very qualities of peacefulness, natural beauty and remoteness that make this region desirable in the first place.
“It would just completely change ‘the way life should be,’ ” said Chris Buchanan, referring to the state’s unofficial slogan. Ms. Buchanan is the statewide coordinator for Stop the Corridor, a coalition opposing the highway.
“Maine is a rural state,” she said, “and this is a businessman who is trying to make it the Northeast trade gateway.”
That is exactly what others hope Mr. Vigue (pronounced VIG-you) can achieve.
“You can think small and be small, or you can think big and be big,” said Christopher M. Gardner, executive director of the Eastport Port Authority. Eastport has the greatest natural depth of any port on the East Coast, but it gets less traffic than many others.
“A big ship could come in here now, but we lack the connectivity to the rest of the world to warrant it,” Mr. Gardner said. “But,” he added, “we’re not in the middle of nowhere, we’re right in the middle of the supply chain. We just have to seize the opportunity.”
The main reason that Mr. Vigue — and his opponents — believe that his proposal could succeed now where others have failed is that it would be financed privately.
“We have no state or federal participation,” Mr. Vigue said in the interview, “and we are confident that this is achievable.” He said he was in discussions with other private partners and was following a recent trend of more private industry involvement in highways around the country.
“You find that cities, states and the federal government do not have adequate funding to support the demand for infrastructure,” Mr. Vigue said.
But to the consternation of many, he has not specified the exact route from the east, in Calais, to the west, in Coburn Gore. He said he would buy and string together existing roads and rights of way; because the project is private, he cannot use the state’s right of eminent domain. For those reasons, he said, the corridor would not disrupt local communities.
But opponents say they have been left in the dark on important details. They fear a 2,000-foot-wide corridor carrying not only long-haul trucks but also oil and gas pipelines and communications cables. (Mr. Vigue said the corridor would be 500 feet wide and says he has had “no such conversations” with utilities.)
Bob and Joan Morrison moved their family from Southern Maine to a farm here in Charleston, a rural area about 25 miles northwest of Bangor, in the 1970s because they fell in love with the gently rolling hills. They also saw the area as affordable and thought it would keep its rural character.
Their son Steve now lives in their original farmhouse with his own family, while Bob and Joan live in another house on the property, a dairy farm of about 1,000 acres. They sell their milk to an organic co-op that processes it in New Hampshire, but plan to start shipping it this winter to a new company in Maine. They grow a lot of their own food and prefer supporting the local economy to the global economy that Mr. Vigue envisions.
“This area has been left behind, and that’s the way we like it,” Joan Morrison, 72, said as the family sat around the kitchen table.
The Morrisons spend a lot of time poring over maps and trying to figure out where the corridor will run and how it will affect them.
“Losses due to the proposed corridor will make it harder, not easier, for my business and other farms in the area to find quality fields to rent or buy,” said Steve Morrison, 47.
Contrary to Mr. Vigue’s promises, the Morrisons see little benefit to Maine itself, beyond a few gas stations to serve the trucks that are hauling goods and waste for international conglomerates.
Environmentalists say the road would be a “nightmare” for the land, air and animal habitats as well as for recreational activities. The private financing has also raised red flags. A 2009 report by the United States Public Interest Research Group Education Fund found that some other privately financed toll roads had failed, leaving taxpayers responsible.
The next step here is a financial feasibility study, for which the Legislature has approved $300,000, to be reimbursed by the builders if the project goes ahead.
The state is paying for the study because it has an interest in the economics of the project, said Ted Talbot, a spokesman for the Maine Department of Transportation; it is not being done for Mr. Vigue.
“We want to know, if it’s a toll road, how does it become profitable for a private company to operate?” Mr. Talbot said. “Someone has to plow it, police it, maintain it.”
Mr. Vigue would not say how much he expected to charge at the tollgates. He dismissed reports that the cost for the whole route could run as high as $100 for cars and $200 for trucks. “It will be financially attractive or people won’t use it,” he said.
Once the feasibility study is done, Mr. Vigue said he expected to take three years for the permitting and design of the project and another three to build it.
Tony Brinkley, a professor who works on economic development projects for the Franco-American Center at the University of Maine, said many in the state were torn over the proposal.
There is scant information about the road, he said, and no one is really in a position to judge whether it would be more harmful or more beneficial to Maine in the long run, or whether it would help Canada at Maine’s expense. For everyone worried about wrecking Maine’s way of life, he said, others fear that doing nothing would leave the economy stagnant.
“The Maine brand,” he said, “should not be poverty.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: August 5, 2012
An earlier version of a photo caption with this article misidentified a farm in Charleston, Me. It is Clovercrest Farm, not Culver Crest.