By LANCE TAPLEY | April 18, 2012
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.