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Maine Small Business Owners Criticize East-West Highway Plan
04/30/2013   Reported By: Jay Field

Maine lawmakers heard public testimony this afternoon on bills that would slow down or put a stop to plans for an east-west highway across Maine. Four measures before the Legislature's Transportation Committee would prohibit the use of state money to study the feasibility of building the privately-funded tollway. As Jay Field reports, a coalition of small business owners along the proposed route spoke out against the project before the afternoon hearing.

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Cianbro, the Pittsfield-based construction company, wants to build the 220-mile highway by 2023 using private funds. The toll road would run from Calais in the east to Coburn Gore in the west. Company officials have said the road would cross the Penobscot River somewhere near Old Town and continue on somewhere south of Dover-Foxcroft.

But so far, no one has publicly pinpointed, on a map, the exact route. That has residents, and an increasing number of small business owners in the region, nervous.

"It's such a diverse group: motels, convenience stores, greenhouses, thrift shops, coffee shops," said Chuck Peabody. "These people are concerned about it. And I expect before we're done we'll have several hundred."

Peabody's company, Crab Apple Whitewater in The Forks, is one of the 128 members so far that have joined the group Maine Businesses Against the East West Highway. Peabody says The Forks would change forever if the road gets built.

"The Forks is a beautiful area - it's the premiere whitewater rafting, probably, in New England, if not east of the Mississippi," he said. "The proposed route of this road, what we know about it, could come directly over the top of the Kennebec Gorge and destroy the small businesses - there's, like, 10 rafting companies in that area, as we know it."

Peabody spoke at a news conference at the state capitol, before heading to an afternoon hearing before the transportation committee. Last year, the Legislature, with Republicans in charge, passed a resolve setting aside $300,000, and directing the Maine Department of Transportation to do an economic feasability study on a possible east-west highway.

But Governor Paul LePage later told the department to back off on the report, due to opposition in the region. And now, majority Democrats want to make sure a feasability study never takes place.

"Our state is facing enough challenges in maintaining our current transportation infrastructure. The limited funds we have should not go towards assissting private projects." said Sen. Linda Valentino, a Saco Democrat.

Valentino is sponsoring a bill that would prohibit the use of Transportation Department funds to pay for a study of a private project like the east-west highway. A second measure before the committee would repeal last year's law calling for the economic feasability report. Another would require an independent analysis and public review of any proposed roadway. And there's a bill calling for a state commission to study a possible east-west highway.

"No one is quite sure what the direct route will be. But if you, you know, put the two points and you go a couple miles from the center, and you look at those communities, I think you'll find communities that would welcome the development," said Kate Dufour of the Maine Municipal Association.

The association opposes the bill that would create a state commission to study the highway. Dufour was one of the only voices at the hearing who noted that the project has its supporters. "There are those along the corridor that want it. They see it as an opportunity to bring development and people to Piscataquis County, essentially," she said.

That's one of the arguments that Cianbro has made in support of the east--west highway. The company didn't send anyone to the hearing to testify and a request for comment wasn't returned by airtime.

Building the roadway, company officials have argued, will create jobs in economically depressed communities. They say it will also make Maine a more viable trading partner with Canada and other nations by linking the Port of Eastport with the highway system in Quebec that leads to the upper Midwest.

But if there are people from towns near the proposed route who support the projects, they didn't show in Augusta.

"There clearly needs to be an independent study of the east-west impacts, paid for by the proposing corporation, with full public disclosure on such a huge project that would change the state forever," said John Gournal, who lives in the small town of Garland.

Gournal also had some advice for the transportation department on that $300,000 set aside for last year's economic feasability: "Use it to fix some of the roads I drove here on," he said.



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