Maine Voices: The real road to nowhere would be the east-west corridor

It’s time the state realizes this would be the surest path to environmental and economic degradation.

BY CHRIS BUCHANAN | SPECIAL TO THE PRESS HERALD | April 2, 2015

Link to Original Article.

BELGRADE — The proposed east-west transportation, communications and utility corridor has raised important questions regarding the state’s transportation policy.

Two bills have been introduced by Maine legislators to ensure the proper role for the state in transportation planning, maintenance and development, without increasing regulations or stymying infrastructure that is desired by local people. The bills would create an equal playing field for all significant transportation proposals that may be governed by the state’s law on public-private infrastructure projects.

L.D. 506, An Act to Improve Public-Private Transportation Partnerships, introduced by Rep. Ralph Chapman, D-Brooksville, and co-sponsored by Sen. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville, will be the subject of a Transportation Committee work session Thursday.

The bill’s summary states: “This bill changes the law governing public-private partnerships to develop transportation facilities by removing the Department of Transportation’s authority to receive unsolicited proposals and to limit those proposals solicited by the department to those in accordance with the Sensible Transportation Policy Act.”

Davis is the sponsor of L.R. 373, An Act to Prohibit the Delegation of Eminent Domain Power to Private Entities. The proposal prevents eminent domain from being used by a private entity for transportation projects, or on behalf of a private entity in certain public-private partnerships.

The need for state legislation has been demonstrated by the efforts of communities to protect themselves from the proposed East-West Corridor. Eight towns – Abbot, Charleston, Dexter, Dover-Foxcroft, Garland, Monson, Parkman and Sangerville – have passed a local regulation, be it a moratorium, referendum, local self-governance or land-use ordinance.

In addition, local people of all political persuasions have formed organizations in opposition to the proposed corridor. One such group, started by grandmothers from Charleston – Grandmothers Against the East-West Corridor – gets together every fourth Friday to lead a silent vigil in front of the Pittsfield headquarters of Cianbro Corp., which proposed the private highway. All this is an example of how many people feel threatened and left vulnerable by existing state laws.

Over the past three years, Stop the East-West Corridor has focused on developing resources, advocating for transparency and supporting decentralized local resistance to the proposed East-West Corridor.

We are all Maine residents working together to help support people with a variety of concerns who are still unable to find answers to their questions from private or public officials.

It is time to ensure that we don’t have any more unfounded proposals that waste taxpayers’ time, money and resources the way the East-West Corridor is doing. The bills introduced by Sen. Davis and Rep. Chapman go a long way to address this problem and deserve the support of all the people of Maine.

Cianbro has been mostly quiet about its progress. However, Cianbro President Andi Vigue voiced continued support for and commitment to the corridor in a WABI-TV 5 news broadcast on June 16, 2014, and in May 2014, Maine Magazine published a feature piece with a photo of Cianbro CEO Peter Vigue in Wesley, where the corridor would “cross Route 9.” Like an inexplicable dark cloud on the horizon that never goes away, the corridor proposal lingers.

That the East-West Corridor is not in the public’s best interest was well documented in the state’s 1999 east-west highway feasibility studies. These studies explored the environmental and socioeconomic impacts of a new public toll highway from Calais to Coburn Gore, along with several other options.

In the end, the state concluded that the new-build option would create the most environmental impact, would not significantly increase manufacturing, would not stop people from moving away and was likely to create a negative bypass effect on rural downtowns, especially in Washington County, which is primarily served by east-west roads.

The price tag for construction at that time was $1.2 billion, although the total costs – incorporating all the negative factors, not just money – were estimated at $439,239 in 2015 and $229,691 in 2030 per job created.

Therefore, the state concluded that the costs outweighed the benefits; in other words, that a new public toll highway would have an overall negative economic impact. Instead, the state decided to improve Routes 9 and 2, a plan that the Maine Department of Transportation is still pursuing.

Why then are we still having to mobilize against this ill-conceived proposal for the East-West Corridor? It is time for reasonable state laws that prioritize the public interest in planning state transportation infrastructure.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chris Buchanan of Belgrade is statewide coordinator of Stop the East-West Corridor. For more information about the group, visit: www.stopthecorridor.org.

New bills to preserve State control over transportation development, and eminent domain

Op-Ed by Chris Buchanan | March 25, 2015

The proposed East-West Transportation, Communications, and Utilities Corridor has raised important public policy questions regarding the state’s transportation policy. Two bills have been introduced by our Maine legislators to ensure the proper role for the state in transportation planning, maintenance, and development, without increasing regulations or stymying infrastructure that is desired by local people. The bills would create an equal playing field for all significant transportation proposals that may utilize the Public-Private-Partnership law.

LD506, An Act to Improve Public-Private Transportation Partnerships, introduced by Rep. Ralph Chapman (D-Brooksville) and cosponsored by Senator Paul Davis (R-Piscataquis), will be heard by the Transportation Committee on Thursday, March 26. The bill’s summary states:“This bill changes the law governing public-private partnerships to develop transportation facilities by removing the Department of Transportation’s authority to receive unsolicited proposals and to limit those proposals solicited by the department to those in accordance with the Sensible Transportation Policy Act.”

LR 373, An Act to Prohibit the Delegation of Eminent Domain Power to Private Entities sponsored by Sen. Paul Davis prevents eminent domain from being used by a private entity for transportation projects, or in certain Public-Private Partnerships (PPP) on behalf of a private entity.

The need for state legislation has been clearly demonstrated by the actions taken by local communities to enact local laws designed to protect their community from the proposed East-West Corridor when adequate state policy has been lacking. Eight communities have passed a local ordinance, be it a moratorium, referendum, local-self governance, or land use ordinance. These communities so far include: Abbot, Charleston, Dexter, Dover-Foxcroft, Garland, Monson, Parkman, and Sangerville.

In addition, local people of all political persuasions have formed groups in opposition to the proposed Corridor. One such group started by Grandmothers from Charleston, “Grandmothers against the East-West Corridor,” get together every fourth Friday to lead a silent vigil in front of Cianbro’s Pittsfield headquarters. All this is telling how many people feel threatened and left vulnerable by Maine’s existing state laws.

Over the past three years, Stop the East-West Corridor has focused on developing resources, advocating for transparency, and supporting decentralized local resistance to the proposed East-West Corridor. We are all Maine residents working together to help support people with a variety of concerns, who are still unable to find answers to their questions from private or public officials. We appreciate that our state legislators are sponsoring these bills in response.

It is time for the state to ensure that we don’t have any more unfounded proposals which waste taxpayers time, money, and resources the way the East-West Corridor is. The bills introduced by Senator Davis and Representative Chapman go a long way to address this problem and deserve the support of all the people of Maine.

Although Cianbro has been mostly quiet about its progress, Cianbro President and COO Andi Vigue voiced continued support and commitment to the Corridor in a WABI-TV 5 news broadcast on June 16, 2014, and Maine Magazine published a feature piece in the May 2014 issue with a photo of Cianbro CEO Peter Vigue in Wesley where the Corridor would “cross Route 9”. Like an inexplicable dark cloud on the horizon that never goes away, the Corridor proposal lingers.

The fact that the East-West Corridor is not in the public’s best interest was well documented by the state in its 1999 Feasibility Studies of an East-West Highway. These studies explored environmental impacts and socio economic impacts of a new-build public toll highway from Calais to Coburn Gore, along with several other options. In the end, the state concluded that the new build option would create the most environmental impact, would not significantly increase manufacturing, would not stop out-migration of population, and was likely to create a negative bypass effect on rural downtowns, especially in Washington County that is primarily served by East-West roads.

The pricetag for construction at that time was $1.2 billion, although the total costs, incorporating all these factors and not just money, were estimated at $439,239 in 2015 and $229,691 in 2030 per job created. Therefore, the state concluded that the costs outweighed the benefits. In other words, there was an overall negative economic impact of that new build public toll highway. Instead, the state decided to improve Routes 9 and 2, a plan that the MDOT is still pursuing.

Why then are we still having to mobilize against this ill-conceived proposal for the East-West Corridor? It is time for reasonable state laws that prioritize the public interest in planning state transportation infrastructure.

Chris Buchanan is the Statewide Coordinator of STEWC and Maine Coordinator of Defending Water for Life, and lives in Belgrade. More info at www.stopthecorridor.org

Mainebiz magazine promotes Peter Vigue and EWC

Link to Article

February 23, 2015 | Mainebiz

Like the real estate motto, Maine offers location, location, location

During hard times or hard winters, Maine and Mainers chug along. Yet there are always those asking how Maine can grow and prosper.

Recently, I had an interesting conversation with Peter Vigue, chairman of the Pittsfield-based Cianbro Cos., the largest construction firm based in Maine, with $530 million in annual sales and 4,000 employees. Ever since I joined Mainebiz nearly a year ago, people, including U.S. Sen. Angus King, have urged me to talk with Vigue and get his take on economic development.

“One of our greatest strengths is people know how to survive. People are resilient, they survive somehow,” Vigue says of Mainers. “We’re independent. I’m not saying we’ll succeed, but we’ll survive.”

He cites residents of Washington County who make a living by “tipping” trees, raking blueberries and digging bloodworms.

But Vigue — who was born in Caribou, went to the Maine Maritime Academy in Castine and lives in the Pittsfield area — says independence can have a downside. Maine’s geography, the great distance between regions and other factors mean it’s harder to get various factions to work together. He cites the number of chambers of commerce, some of which overlap in coverage, creating competition instead of cooperation.

“How do you get everyone going in the same direction?” he asks.

The challenge is the northern half of the state continues to see outward migration and a dwindling number of jobs.

He says he’s worked with governors — most recently, Angus King (when he was in that role), John Baldacci and Paul LePage.

“It’s not about politics. It’s about the people. We’re in a rut,” says Vigue, adding that it’s the business community that could drive change.

The solutions?

“If you’re going to be part of an economy, you need connectivity,” he says. That applies as much to technology as infrastructure.

“What is the thing Maine has always had? Natural resources and location. We could fill sailing ships in Bangor and go anywhere you needed to go … From [shipping] lumber to pulp and paper,” says Vigue.

Now, with the decline of Maine’s paper industry, “we’re refocused on playing defense,” he says.

Yet Vigue stresses the need to again use the waterways to Maine’s advantage. He’s a big proponent of expanding the shipping facility at Eastport, one of Maine’s three deep water ports (along with Searsport and Portland). Expansion would mean having to build rail access (at present, the closest rail line is 16 miles away, at Ayers Junction). Yet the “deep water” part of the port already exists. Even as the Port of New York and New Jersey spends $7 billion to deepen its channel to 50 feet, Eastport has a natural resource with its depth of 64 feet. Deeper channels mean larger ships and greater cargo capacities.

Leading ports in New York; Norfolk, Va.; and Savannah, Ga., are reaching capacity. Ports on the West Coast are beset by labor issues and high costs. Eastport, by contrast, has great potential and is a step closer to ports in Europe and the Suez Canal, Vigue says.

Though the effort has stalled, Vigue continues to push for an east-west highway that could connect Maine to Quebec on one side and New Brunswick on the other (running from Coburn Gore on the west to Calais on the east).

“The real challenge isn’t about a highway,” he says. “We’re within one day’s travel from 40% of the U.S. population. What do we have that other people want? What is sustainable?”

Maine’s agriculture potential can also be used to our advantage, he says. Food is one thing everyone needs. As a native of Aroostook County, he has a natural inclination to promote the agricultural resources there: potatoes, broccoli, beef and other products. And products with a Maine label continue to have widespread appeal.

“We have 1.3 million people. We can turn this around on a dime,” Vigue says. “But we need a strategy and a plan.”

Maine east-west highway timeline

1990 – Leaders at the New England Governors-Eastern Canadian Premiers’ conference in Hartford, Connecticut, recommend the creation of an east-west highway through Maine that would link the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick and Quebec.

1991 – Departing Speaker of the House John L. Martin told Presque Isle Rotarians that the creation of a long proposed 100-mile east-west highway from Ashland to the Quebec border would be the “saving grace” for Aroostook County.

1997 – State Rep. Pamela Hatch, D-Skowhegan, leads a small group of legislators calling for preliminary studies of a highway and a second bill calling for a $100 million bond issue which Hatch said would be supplemented by federal money. The highway would follow Route 9 from Calais to Bangor and then Route 2 to the New Hampshire border at Gilead. In Skowhegan, one branch of the new highway would split from Route 2 and follow Route 201 to the northern Maine border with Quebec near Jackman. Total projected cost: $1.1 billion.

1999 — A study prepared for the Maine Department of Transportation concludes that the benefits of a four-lane divided highway across Maine don’t justify the costs, recommending instead that Maine work to improve existing roads. Although a new highway running from Calais to Quebec or New Hampshire could generate as many as 3,500 jobs in the next three decades in construction, tourism, business services and other fields, the study found that the cost of creating each of those jobs would range from $200,000 to $400,000.

2005 – President George W. Bush signs a federal transportation bill allocating $1.1 billion to the state over the next six years, including $28 million for the east-west highway.

2007 — President and CEO of Cianbro Corp. Peter Vigue unveiled a proposal for a toll highway from Calais to Coburn Gore, a privately-funded venture that he said was the only solution to the pressing need for a better way to cross the state. It’s cost: $2.1 billion.

2012 — Gov. Paul LePage signed into law a bill setting aside $300,000 to study the feasibility of Vigue’s proposal. Environmentalists say Canadian businesses and truckers will benefit from a short route across Maine, not Mainers or tourists. The project also lacks enough interchanges and would have adverse potential environmental impacts, they say. The Sierra Club calls the project one of the worst in the U.S.

2013 – Vigue says he supports the decision of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee to repeal a feasibility study for the proposed highway. He says the project could go forward anyway and a study “is something that can be done and be done by a third party.” The Transportation Committee votes unanimously to recommend repealing the $300,000 feasibility study for the proposed $2.1 billion private east-west highway.

Source: BDN archives

Dead or dormant? Proponents, opponents weigh in on status of east-west highway proposal

BDN PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY ERIC ZELZ
Posted Dec. 30, 2014, at 5:37 a.m.
Last modified Dec. 30, 2014, at 5:53 a.m.

PITTSFIELD, Maine — The proposal to build a $2.1 billion, privately funded east-west highway connecting two Canadian provinces through Maine is not dead, just on the back burner, a spokesman for the plan’s main proponent said Monday.

“We have sort of lowered the temperature on that project a little bit for a whole bunch of reasons,” said Darryl Brown, program manager for the east-west highway project at Cianbro Corp. “We still are very passionate about the fact that this corridor is much needed and certainly would provide a transportation alternative to the west and upper midwest, particularly in this time of global economy.”

“But in terms of actively pursuing some of the things that need to happen, we have not been as engaged as of late as we were a year ago,” Brown added. “There are other projects that Cianbro is involved in that take precedence.”

Company workers are still “spending some time on this determining where the best routing possibilities would lie,” he said. That’s about the extent of their efforts, he said.

Proponents and opponents agreed that the project is at least dormant.

“I would say it is in the slow lane, maybe the breakdown lane, certainly not the fast lane,” said Jym St. Pierre, Maine director of Restore: The North Woods, an environmental group that opposes the plan.

“I think it is on life support,” said former state Sen. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley, who supports the idea. “I am beginning to wonder if it will ever be built because the people who are for it are not as enthused as the people against it. The people who are against it are just worked right up. It is a political hot button.”

Maine Department of Transportation spokesman Ted Talbot said that as far as state officials are concerned, the highway plan “is on the same shelf it was on when it was shelved the last time,” in May 2013.

That’s when the Legislature’s Transportation Committee voted unanimously to repeal a $300,000 Maine DOT feasibility study of the highway in response to intense opposition, effectively killing any momentum the project might have developed. The “investor-grade” study would determine for investors whether the highway would be worth the expense, and give state officials a basis for future east-west highway planning, Thomas said.

The idea had been kicking around Maine for decades when Cianbro president Peter Vigue began promoting his company’s take on it in 2007. He said the 220-mile private highway would bisect Maine from Calais to Coburn Gore, connecting Canada’s Maritime Provinces with Quebec.

Messages left for Vigue seeking comment for this story were not returned. He has previously said that the highway would help Maine take advantage of its location by improving connectivity of eastern Canada and the interior United States with Atlantic trade routes to Europe and Asia, while drawing millions of dollars in investment and creating thousands of jobs.

It would be, he said, a particular boost for rural Maine communities devastated by the loss of traditional manufacturing and resource-based jobs.

But details about the highway, including its exact route, have been scarce, and environmental groups, small-business owners and residents of communities that could be affected by the project have opposed the plan through several legislative measures. One environmentalist claimed that it would cross or be in the viewshed of more than five dozen significant conservation and recreation areas.

Nine municipalities have passed ordinances or regulations opposing or requiring their approval of the highway. They are Abbott, Charleston, Dexter, Dover-Foxcroft, Garland, Monson, Parkman, Sangerville and Wellington, said Chris Buchanan, statewide coordinator of Stop The East-West Corridor. The towns, in general, fear losing the land needed to build the highway and the effects on their businesses and property values if it is constructed.

The opposition to it was among the things that made the study proposal easy for legislators to reject. Legislators assumed the public end of the public-private partnership would involve the state sinking tens to hundreds of millions of dollars into the highway, an unpalatable notion, said state Sen. Edward Mazurek, D-Rockland, former chairman of the Transportation Committee, the body that would take up a revised or resubmitted bill.

“Personally, I don’t think that it would [be taken up again]. There was a lot of discussion about it and the general consensus of it was that Route 2 basically is an east-west highway for the state,” Mazurek said. “The perception was that a few people would benefit from it but not most others in the state.”

The highway’s proponents appear to be keeping the issue under the radar, if they are dealing with it at all. Gov. Paul LePage, who conditionally supports the project, hasn’t made any public statements about it recently. His spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, did not return a recent email message. A spokeswoman for Eastern Maine Development Corp., another project proponent, declined to comment on it.

David Cole, a transportation consultant and former Maine Department of Transportation commissioner, said he is unaware of any promotion of the proposal occurring recently, while Sidney Mitchell, secretary to the Friends of the Piscataquis Valley group that opposes the project, said that group members hope to work with legislators this spring to disassemble parts of the laws that allow public-private partnerships.

Cole, who was DOT commissioner when Vigue began promoting the idea in 2007, supports improving northern Maine’s infrastructure, but said he thinks the state has a bigger opportunity to improve its east-to-west transportation infrastructure in the near future with its port-to-rail connections.

“Any proposal for a major east-west highway would require strong public support and need to make sense economically,” Cole said. “The economics have to be there before people are going to support any proposal. They have to know that the traffic is there, and to my knowledge, that hasn’t happened yet. That’s not saying whether an east-west highway is good or bad.”

Cole made a point that the state’s three gubernatorial candidates offered when the plan was discussed prior to the November election — that too little was known about the plan to determine whether it should be endorsed.

“I think at this point there are still a lot of unknowns about how a highway would work. Those questions would have to be answered and again, that’s something that needs a lot of public support,” Cole added.

Buchanan said she wished the idea would disappear.

“It seems unfair that people are living in limbo with no way to end what most people are perceiving as a threat,” she said. “That is the most important message I can say.”

Thomas, Cole and St. Pierre said they don’t see the project going away. They assume that Vigue and other proponents continue to work on it privately. The study bill could be revived publicly, Talbot said, by legislative action or upon LePage’s request.

“If doing an east-west highway were easy,” Cole said wryly, “it would have been done 50 years ago, right?”

BDN writers Alex Barber, Robert Long, and Mario Moretto contributed to this report.

Protesters oppose east-west highway at conference about Maine-Canada commerce

By Nick McCrea, BDN Staff
Posted April 24, 2012, at 5:27 p.m.

Go to link for video:

http://bangordailynews.com/2012/04/24/news/bangor/protesters-oppose-east-west-highway-at-conference-about-maine-canada-commerce/

ORONO, Maine — While business and government officials from Maine and Canada gathered Tuesday morning at the University of Maine to discuss how to spur economic growth in the Atlantic region, a small cadre of central Maine residents outside the conference decried one of the proposals aimed at reaching that goal — an east-west highway through Maine’s interior.

Tuesday was the second day of the Cross-Border Economic Integration in the Northeast Conference, which featured a presentation from Cianbro Chairman and CEO Peter Vigue about plans for a privately funded 220-mile Maine toll highway connecting New Brunswick to Quebec.

Vigue said Tuesday afternoon that the highway idea is “very attractive” to the provinces of eastern Canada and would bring jobs and increased potential for tourism to Maine communities. The project also would open up new lanes for exportation of Maine goods to the provinces and the Midwest, Vigue said.

“This is a project we’ve worked at now for many years, and in recent years the economy has started to improve and turn around, and we began to really understand the demand for this corridor and this highway,” he said.

But it’s a need that protesters displaying signs Tuesday outside Wells Conference Center, where the event was held, don’t see.

Peter Brenc of Dover-Foxcroft, David Bessler of Atkinson and Peter Eldredge of Guilford argued that Cianbro has yet to prove towns surrounding the route of the highway would see increased prosperity because of its existence.

Brenc argued that Interstate 95 has been routing traffic through Howland and Millinocket for decades and that the highway hasn’t helped those “ghost towns” through economic hardship.

Bessler said Vigue has been vague about how the highway will draw business to Maine and that the temporary construction jobs it will create will go away after a few years. He said he believes the project would do more to change the identity and “soul” of the area than to improve the economy.

The men displayed signs carrying messages such as: “Vigue’s dream is our nightmare,” “Don’t ruin our townships” and “Don’t break the heart of Maine.”

While the highway undoubtedly would serve as a shortcut for Canadian commerce, the protesters said, they would rather see Maine’s interior kept as is.

“We’re all in the path of it,” Brenc said, adding that he didn’t want central Maine communities to be divided in half by a “swath of road.”

The state will conduct an independent study to explore the feasibility of the new road. Vigue said he is confident the state will like what it finds.

“The state of Maine should evaluate for itself — not for me or for anyone else — but evaluate for itself that this is the right thing for the state of Maine and that it will benefit the state of Maine,” Vigue said.

Vigue said the number of residents in favor of the project far exceeds “the number of adversarial people that don’t want to see Maine grow.”

“The facts are that the economy is going in the wrong direction and that there are people who … want to live in these rural areas that are deserving of an opportunity to earn a strong income,” Vigue said. “We have zero intentions of going through a community with a highway or a corridor and destroying it.”

“If people who are opposed to this project have a better idea at improving the quality of life in these areas, have a better idea at re-employing people that are unemployed or underemployed, have a better idea on how to take people off of social programs and put them back to work, then I’m more than willing to listen,” Vigue said.

David Bessler of Atkinson (left), Peter Eldredge of Guilford (center) and Peter Brenc of Dover-Foxcroft protest outside the Wells Conference Center on the University of Maine campus in Orono Tuesday. They were protesting outside the Cross-Border Economic Integration in the Northeast Conference, particularly against the propopesd east-west highway that would be privately funded and serve to link New Brunswick to Quebec. Cianbro Chairman Peter Vigue spoke at the conference about the proposed project.

David Bessler of Atkinson (left), Peter Eldredge of Guilford (center) and Peter Brenc of Dover-Foxcroft protest outside the Wells Conference Center on the University of Maine campus in Orono Tuesday. They were protesting outside the Cross-Border Economic Integration in the Northeast Conference, particularly against the propopesd east-west highway that would be privately funded and serve to link New Brunswick to Quebec. Cianbro Chairman Peter Vigue spoke at the conference about the proposed project.

Politicos like the East-West highway; how about the public?

By LANCE TAPLEY  |  April 18, 2012

Read more: http://thephoenix.com/boston/news/137148-politicos-like-the-east-west-highway-how-about-th/#ixzz1sVEUuFbj

Peter Vigue, CEO of Maine’s big construction company Cianbro, has recently been successful in promoting to the state’s politicians his plan for a 220-mile, limited-access, privately owned toll highway bisecting Maine from New Brunswick to Quebec. It’s the latest incarnation of an idea usually referred to as the East-West Highway.

As the issue heats up, though, he may have a more difficult time with the public. Protesters are starting to plague him. And he doesn’t exactly have a gentle touch with the press: He had me ejected from a meeting to which I had been invited when I simply tried to cover a speech he was giving.

In early April the Legislature and Republican Governor Paul LePage approved a Department of Transportation “traffic and revenue” study of the highway. The study is estimated to cost taxpayers $300,000, although the new law doesn’t specify an upper dollar limit. The developer is supposed to pay back the state upon the highway’s “final authorization.”

The study’s approval stimulated opposition to the highway. On the evening of April 12 Vigue was scheduled to speak at the Senator Inn in Augusta to a group called Women’s Transportation Seminar. An hour before he arrived, about 20 people began picketing outside the hotel. They carried signs declaring “Industrial Corridors Kill Towns and Ecosystems” and “Don’t Cut ME in Two.”

Protesters see the highway as hugely environmentally destructive and as benefitting only large Canadian and American corporations. They say it would provide few permanent jobs for Mainers, encourage corporate export of water and wood chips, and decrease Maine’s appeal to tourists.

Many of the protesters were associated either with Occupy Augusta or an organization, Defending Water for Life in Maine, that has made opposition to the highway its chief cause.

The major environmental groups, too, are starting to pay attention. The Natural Resources Council of Maine is opposed to it, though NRCM representatives tell me they hadn’t been able to focus on the study bill in the recent legislative session. Ted Koffman, executive director of the Maine Audubon Society, says his group has yet to take an official position but is concerned about the highway’s potential to fragment wildlife habitat.

The evening before Vigue’s speech, I had emailed the event’s organizer, Robyn Saunders, a request to cover it. In the morning she replied: “We look forward to seeing you there tonight. Please be sure to grab your printed name tag on the way in. Thanks!”

When I arrived at the Senator and first interviewed protesters, I couldn’t help noticing the plainclothes security men spread out in the parking lot, as if a presidential candidate were inside. The mostly older picketers seemed orderly.

Inside, a big surprise awaited me. After picking up my badge, as I chatted with some of the 30 or so people waiting for Vigue to speak, a man who introduced himself as the hotel manager told me I had to leave.

After my arguments didn’t move him, and I couldn’t get a satisfactory explanation of what was happening from Saunders, I went to Vigue, whom I had never met. I asked him to please explain to the manager that it was okay that I, a reporter, be allowed to stay. I just wanted to hear his arguments for the highway. “I’m not in charge here,” Vigue responded. The hotel manager escorted me out.

Nevertheless, I found out something of what he had to say. Chris Buchanan, who heads up Defending Water for Life in Maine, had bought a ticket to the speech. She reports Vigue is looking at funding from a single investor. He envisions fencing off the entire highway, she says, but plans to work with Maine Audubon and the Nature Conservancy to place “wildlife bridges” over it. (Koffman of Maine Audubon says no deal has been made.)

Another person present, who asked to remain unidentified, says Vigue believes it’ll take two or three years to design and permit the highway, then three years to build it. My informant finds “very strange” what he estimates were a half-dozen security people carefully watching the small crowd.

I found information, too, about the highway onwww.eastwestme.com. It will cost $2 billion, run from Calais to Coburn Gore, and also be a “communications and utility corridor.” Canadians will be “significant beneficiaries,” especially Canadian trucks, but benefits are predicted for Maine industries and tourists.

But why did I get kicked out? The next day I reached Vigue on the phone. He indeed was responsible. He said that he travels with a bodyguard because of threats he has received, that his bodyguard had told him “there’s a gentleman here that’s not invited,” and that he deferred to the advice of the bodyguard to have me ejected.

Our phone conversation hadn’t been put off the record. But when I told Vigue I was going to write about being kicked out of the meeting, including his explanation, he told me: “If you go there, it’s not going to be good.” Then he hung up.

New east-west highway proposal renews an old debate with refocused financing

By Randy Billings | APRIL 16, 2012

http://www.mainebiz.biz/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20120416/CURRENTEDITION/304139997/1088

photo/TIM GREENWAY
PHOTO/TIM GREENWAY
Peter Vigue, chairman and CEO of Cianbro Corp., is calling on private investment to lead the way in creating an east-west highway
Enlarge image
PHOTO/TIM GREENWAY
Barbara Cherry, a biologist with Maine Audubon who assesses the impact of roads on wildlife, says a new major highway could threaten habitat and the free movement of wildlife
Enlarge image
Source: Peter Vigue, Cianbro Corp.

East-west highway study

The Maine Department of Transportation will soon solicit bids for private firms interested in conducting an investment-grade feasibility study of an east-west highway. The $300,000 study is being funded through tax dollars, but would be reimbursed should the project move forward.

DOT spokesman Ted Talbot said the study will explore a variety of public-private partnerships and whether any of those are attractive to private investors. Among the areas to be studied:

  • Potential traffic volumes
  • Toll schedules
  • Routes
  • Potential relationships between the private and public sectors, in terms of design­­ing, building, financing and operating

“There are so many combinations of possibilities that this feasibility study needs to be broad,” he says.

Talbot says other issues, such as environmental impacts and potential seizures under eminent domain, would be studied if the highway proves feasible and an exact route is chosen.

Also, any upgrades that may be needed to the Coburn Gore border crossing will not be included in the feasibility study, he says.

It seems simple: The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. But over the years, creating a line connecting Down East Maine/Canadian Maritimes to lucrative markets in Canada or the Midwest has proved elusive.

Numerous studies have looked into the costs and benefits of building an east-west highway that would eliminate the need for truckers and tourists to either travel south in order to go west, or in the case of Canadian truckers, north around the state’s border.

Recently, Peter Vigue, chairman and CEO of Cianbro, has emerged at the forefront of these efforts, saying previously studied routes were too complicated, too expensive and relied on a dwindling supply of highway dollars. Now he’s marshaling forces to bring private money and private management to the table.

Since the 1960s, the predominant proposed route for an east-west highway, Vigue says, was Calais to Bangor, down I-95 to Newport, then to Route 2 through Bethel, across to New Hampshire, Vermont and New York state.

“That’s the routing that has been studied over and over again,” he says. “The most recent study indicated it would cost $12.5 billion and [take] 25 years to complete. And it would be dependent on a combination of state and federal funds, which don’t exist.”

Vigue believes he knows a better way and his idea seems to be gaining traction with longtime east-west highway advocates, who are quick to point out that Maine’s major transportation corridors only run north to south.

Vigue says a four-lane, 220-mile road connecting Calais to Coburn Gore could be built by utilizing existing rights of way, including the Stud Mill Road, a wide dirt road connecting Maine’s Down East to the Old Town area.

That east-west highway could be built for less than $2 billion through a public-private partnership, says Vigue, one that would call on the private sector to design, build, finance, operate and maintain the roadway. The private investors would recoup their costs through tolls, he says.

Project costs would be lower than previously studied routes, he says, because once a 61-mile road is built from Coburn Gore to Sherbrooke, Canada, an existing Canadian highway could be utilized to connect points westward, including Quebec, Montreal, Toronto, Chicago, Detroit and beyond.

“The east-west highway is complete at that point,” he says, assuming the new alignment moves forward. “What it would do is connect Maine to western areas of the country, what I call the rust belt — the central part of the country, where there is tremendous economic activity.”

The road would be more than a highway; Vigue calls it a “transportation, utility and communications corridor,” a 2,000-foot-wide swath that leaves room for future needs — whatever they might be. “No one can define what the needs are 20 to 50 years from now,” he says.

The Legislature recently approved spending $300,000 on an investment grade feasibility study for an east-west highway.
Maine Department of Transportation Commissioner David Berndhart says the study will look at whether such a project could be privately funded, whether drivers would be willing to pay a toll, and if so, how much would they pay. He expects it to be completed by the end of this year.

Vigue is bullish about the project’s chances in the private market. “Absolutely,” Vigue says about whether the private sector will think it could make money off this toll road. “I can’t share a lot of information with you but I have tremendous confidence that [funding] will be the least of our issues.”

If the feasibility study produces encouraging results, Vigue says he hopes to have the project permitted within two to three years, with construction following over the next three years. Vigue says Cianbro could potentially build structures on any future toll road — bridges, toll booths and the like, but someone else would have to build the road.

‘Game changer’

David Cole is a former president of the Eastern Maine Development Corp., which has long touted the need for an east-west highway. When he held that post from 1996 to 2003, he noticed the idea to build an east-west highway gaining traction. A state study in 1999 laid out the benefits of improved east-west travel.

As DOT commissioner from 2003 to 2011, Cole oversaw the implementation of several improvements to lay the ground work for such a road, including a brand- new $120 million border crossing built at the Calais-St. Stephen border. He says highway money has become more difficult to procure; the state doesn’t even have enough money to maintain the roads and bridges it already has, let alone construct hundreds of miles of additional roads and infrastructure.

A 2009 study, “Northeast CanAm Connections: Integrating the Economy and Transportation,” refocused attention on the benefits of a limited access east-west road, especially for international trade. The report states that the increased reliance on shipping routes to Asia, Europe, India and the Middle East via the Suez and Panama canals could make CanAm ports, including Eastport, Searsport and Portland, more attractive (see “Port progress,” on page 16.) National Public Radio recently reported that an expansion of the Panama Canal currently under way would increase ship traffic by 50% and allow cargo ships three times as large to pass through, making East Coast ports more attractive to Asian exporters.

Soon after that CanAm study was released, Cole says Vigue approached him to discuss a new approach to building the highway.

Vigue’s idea is a “game-changer,” says Cole, because it relies on private investment, not federal highway dollars. He says it can and will be designed in accordance to Canadian weight limits of 137,500 pounds, whereas U.S. interstate laws limit trucks to 100,000 pounds.

“You have a harmonization issue between our two countries,” says Cole. “To me, that’s what was fascinating about the proposal.”

Cole says Canadian truckers currently have to drive around the northern part of Maine to access Quebec, while Maine truckers have to drive south through New Hampshire and sometimes Massachusetts to deliver goods to the Midwest.

Public-private partnerships, or 3Ps, are currently being touted by the Federal Highway Administration as a way to fund public infrastructure projects. While the model is widely used in Europe, it has seen mixed results in the United States. According to the FHWA website, South Bay Expressway LP was tapped to finance and build a $658 million, 9.2-mile extension to an existing freeway in California. The road opened in 2007, but litigation costs and lower-than-expected toll revenue forced the company to reorganize its debt in last year in U.S. Bankruptcy Court.

Like the FHWA, Cole also sees 3Ps as being an innovative solution to funding future public infrastructure projects. “This is recognition of that trend,” Cole says. “You have to commend [Vigue] for thinking outside the box.”

Vigue says there are more examples of successful 3Ps than failures, citing the Maine Turnpike Authority as an example. The quasi-state agency was established by the Legislature to build, maintain and operate the 109-mile turnpike. “We’re not doing this to fail,” he says. “We’re aligning ourselves with a developer that’s in the business of doing this globally.” He declined to give specifics.

Paper industry benefits

The pulp, paper and burgeoning wood pellet industry would perhaps benefit most from an east-west highway. Take Lincoln Paper and Tissue, for example.

Company Transportation Director Tony Stewart says an east-west highway could save the mill from $500,000 to $750,000 on its outbound shipping costs. It would also result in significant savings for Canadian truckers bringing in the softwood sawdust and hardwood used to make their paper and tissue.

Stewart says the mill sends about 60 of its 150 trucks a week to Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota and Michigan. Currently, trucks must travel a nearly 1,200-mile route to get to Chicago: Trucks head south on I-95 from Lincoln to I-495 in Massachusetts; then take I-84, I-81 and I-80 through Pennsylvania, before heading north through Ohio and Indiana on to Chicago.

The east-west highway being sought by Vigue would shave more than 140 miles off that trip each way, he says, making it a two-day trip. It would also make it easier to get truckers to travel to Lincoln to pick up loads.

“It would be like you picked our company up and moved it down to the Augusta area,” he says. “We [would be] closer to our markets and it [would make]us more competitive.”

Stewart says the company also exports some products to Israel, Europe, India and the Dominican Republic. However, the most cost-effective shipping is through ports in New York and Montreal, not those in Maine.

Boosting exports

Stewart says a highway could make Maine’s ports bigger players on the international scene, since ships must travel around New Brunswick to get to Montreal.

According to a recent report by the Maine Economic Growth Council, Maine exported nearly $3.6 billion in commodities in 2011, a 13% increase over the previous year. The biggest customers include Canada, Malaysia and China, which receive 38%, 28% and 8% of Maine exports, respectively, the report states.

“I think this highway could impact a lot more than Lincoln Paper and Tissue,” Stewart says. “It could be that [Maine’s] no longer an afterthought. We’ll never be the hub, but we can be a lot bigger player than we are right now.”

Bob Ziegelaar is president of MainXPO, a consulting firm that works with Maine exporters, which he considers to be a critical segment of the local economy, since they bring new revenue into the state. He says exporters have long been inhibited by the absence of an east-west highway.

“The Bangor, Searsport and even the Eastport corridor is clearly an economic driver for all of central and northern Maine and we need to take advantage of that,” he says. “An east-west highway obviously has always been lacking.”

Ziegelaar says making better connections to Maine’s ports could also prompt other businesses to locate here. He says a European car maker considered landing its vehicles in Searsport, but decided against it because there is no easy truck corridor to bring them to market.

Ziegelaar says he is currently working with a startup company that could also benefit from an east-west toll road, but declined to give details. “Those are all potential developments — that’s not to say they will necessarily happen,” he says. “Unless you position yourself so you can appeal to those kinds of companies, of course they would never come.”

Additionally, he says that communities positioned along the east-west corridor could also experience economic growth, which often occurs around transportation corridors. “If Maine gets left behind in terms of connectivity in terms of the national and international marketplace, we will never be at a point where we will have enough jobs for our future generations,” he says.

Use caution ahead

Since the Legislature approved funding for the investment-grade study of a potential highway, Vigue and DOT officials have been hosting public forums in Canada and Calais, with others scheduled in Augusta and Lincoln.

The most recent map released by Vigue shows the highway running along the Stud Mill Road to just north of Bangor, before heading north to the Dover Foxcroft region. From there, the road continues to The Forks region and then on to Coburn Gore on the U.S.-Canada border.

That route would create a highway through one of the oldest, untouched forests in the Northeastern United States, which gives pause to some communities and conservation groups. Environmental groups, such as the Natural Resources Council of Maine, oppose the plan.

“We’ve opposed the east-west highway every time it has come up, and it has come up many times before,” says Cathy Johnson, North Woods project director for the NRCM. “We have never seen that this will have a benefit, particularly to the state of Maine. I think the main purpose of this is for trucks to go from New Brunswick to Quebec.”

The Maine Audubon Society is also concerned. Audubon biologist Barbara Charry, who specializes in road ecology, says that while the roads only take up about 1% of the total land area in the United States, their ecological impact amounts to 15% to 20%, often stretching thousands of feet from the paved surface.

“One of the biggest issues is animals have to move,” Charry says. “They have to find a place to breed and find food.”

Putting a “major new highway” through the forest, says Charry, could limit wildlife’s ability to move throughout the region, which is important to preserve the natural genetic exchange of animals. The road could also affect threatened Canadian lynx habitats, and the potential for moose collisions is a “real safety issue,” she says.

Even economic development officials in Maine’s most rural county aren’t sure the potential economic benefits of the road would be worth the environmental costs.

Janet Sawyer, executive director of the Piscataquis County Economic Development Corp., says the group has not yet taken a formal position on the east-west highway. “We need to know how it can grow our economy, because it is not clear by what has been stated so far,” she says. “We in Piscataquis County need to look at that very carefully.”

Sawyer says it’s important to balance economic development with the environmental and cultural aspects that define the region. Over the years, the county has been working to cultivate eco-tourism, which relies on the county’s out-of-the-way location and natural assets such as waterfalls, hiking trails and lakes.

“This area has the ability to be very successful as a tourism destination,” she says. “We’re looking to put in mountain biking [and] some extreme sports — that kind of development could greatly enhance this region and keep the flavor that is unique. “There is no Walmart in this county,” she adds. “There is no Dunkin’ Donuts in this county. And I say that proudly. We are untouched, pretty much, by what the rest of the country sees all over the place.”

Sawyer says the state must not lose sight of its long-term economic goals for potential short-term gains. If the project moves forward, she believes the county will need to have control over where it goes. Also, while the route will seek to use existing rights of way, she is also concerned about potential seizure of private land through eminent domain.

“I consider it my job to look at all facets of economic development,” she says. “We need…to take a long hard look and not jump to fast conclusions that may be harmful in the long run.”

Vigue, however, says the road would make east-west travel safer and would actually lead to more tourism for the state, especially from Canada. He also says the environmental damage is being overstated, since it would largely be built on existing, active roads. He says the road may connect communities, but will not go through or destroy them, as some critics claim.

“This is all about attracting investment in the state,” Vigue says. “I’m very passionate about this, because I think it is very important to the state. I think it’s a simple concept that is very doable, and we can’t depend on government to make all of these things happen, because it won’t happen.”