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Maine Senate Gives Initial Thumbs up to Plan to Fund East-West Highway Study
03/13/2012   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

A proposal to use taxpayer dollars to underwrite a study on the construction of a privately funded east-west highway in Maine was given initial approval in the Maine Senate today in a party-line vote. The bill authorizes spending at least $300,000 to assess the value of the project for private investors. Republicans claim the project could result in thousands of new jobs, but Democrats argue that the state shouldn't be using public money for private projects.

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The 15 Democrats who united to reject a study for the east-west highway were not necessarily at odds with those who claim the state could benefit from the project. Instead, they said they had some real problems with using public money for a privately-funded transportation project.

"Where do the people of Maine get so lucky that they can fund this," asked state Sen. Bill Diamond, a Windham Democrat. "Blank check, private development and all of a sudden we have money in the highway fund to do this.""

State Sen. Bill Diamond, a Windham Democrat, questioned the potential costs of a so-called investor grade study for a privately constructed highway crossing Maine from east to west. Proponents claim the study would cost around $300,000, but Diamond said those costs were not specified in the bill that authorizes the expense.

"It doesn't say $300,000, in fact it's an open check," Diamond said. "It's a blank check. It tells them to do the study, so if the study costs $400,000 or $500,000, that's what DOT will have to pay."

But proponents claim the benefits the state could receive eclipse the study costs -- should project move forward. Republican State Sen. Ron Collins, of Wells, is co-chair of the Legislature's Transportation Committee.

"Two billion dollars in a highway that, again, will not the cost the taxpayers of Maine--only $300,000--from existing funds within Maine DOT's budget, to me that's not bad math," Collins said.

But state Sen. Elizabeth Schneider, an Orono Democrat, argued that Maine could not afford to take $300,000 from its highway fund to invest in the study. "If they can put up the money, to $2 billion, then surely they can come up with the $300,000 or $500,000 to fund this study," she said.

But that's not the point, said state Sen. Doug Thomas, a Ripley Republican. Thomas said the state needs to show some good faith in the project if it is to go forward.

The bill passed 19-15 in the Senate and faces additional votes in the House and Senate.


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