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Vigue Pitches East-West Highway Across Maine, as Opponents Protest
05/15/2012   Reported By: Jay Field

Peter Vigue, who runs Maine construction giant Cianbro, is a man on a mission. It began years ago, but picked up new momentum this spring, when Gov. Paul LePage signed off on a feasability study of a privately-funded highway across northern Maine, linking the Canadian Maritimes and Quebec. Vigue, whose firm would build the $2 billion privately-funded roadway, says it would transform Maine's economy for the better. He's taking that message across the state. But the project is also generating strong opposition from environmental groups and local property owners, and these critics turned out early this morning in Dover Foxcroft, where Viguie was meeting with Piscataquis County Commissioners.

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Two scenes unfolded early today at the Piscataquis County Courthouse. Outside, protesters milled about in the parking lot and along East Main St. They carried signs under a light drizzle. "Selling Off Maine's Rural Heritage," read one. And "Vigue's Dream is Our Nightmare."

Inside, Peter Vigue, the Cianbro CEO, gave a presentation on the east-west highway. The fire code allowed only 26 people into the room to hear it. But Vigue stayed afterward to talk with reporters. "Presented the project and answered a number of questions and concerns that people have in this area--eminent domain, that we'll go through environmentally-sensitive areas, that we'll take people's homes when they're unwilling," he said.

Those concerns, Vigue insists, are unfounded. That's not the way Cianbro does business, he says. Vigue believes the east-west highway is an opportunity that northern Maine can't afford to pass up.

"I think it will help turn the state of Maine around," he says. "If you look at this region, this area, there's tremendous under-employemnt, double-digit unemployment. All one has to do is go to Guilford, go to Dover, any one of these communities that have been impacted in a very negative manner, as a result of the economy. Unless we enhance connectivity, we're going to be in trouble."

Enhanced connectivity, in this case, would come in the form of a 220-mile, four-lane highway. The latest mock-up calls for the road to stretch from Coburn Gore---on the border with Quebec in the west----to Calais and the Canadian province of New Brunswick in the east.

An east-west highway would open up Canadian markets to Maine goods and put the state within a day's drive of nearly every major city in North America. Vigue says the thruway could also open up new shipping opportunities at a time of change in the industry.

An ongoing expansion of the Panama Canal would allow larger cargo ships to pass through the waterway, making ports on the east coast, like Eastport, more accessible to massive freighters carrying goods from the far east. "It's a very deep port, and Maine is up to it and I believe the people in Eastport are," Vigue says. "I've meant with them and they are very bullish on that opportunity."

The $2 billion highway would be built with private funds and maintained by a toll system. If approved, Vigue says Cianbro would only use Maine-based sub-contractors on the project.

Tom Lizotte, who chairs the Piscataquis County Board of Commissioners, says Vigue's economic arguments on behalf of the project were persuasive. But debate over the highway, he notes, is still in its infancy. "It's way premature for county commissioners to take a formal stance on this. We want to see the results of the state feasibility study," he says.

Lizotte says some constituents echo Vigue's concerns about the region's economic future if the road isn't built. But others, he says, worry about what a four-lane highway would do to the area's sense of place. "They moved to Piscataquis County because they love the natural resources and the outdoors and the landscape here. And they don't want to see that changed for the worse."

"Everybody's got to remember: It's 2,000-feet wide," says Peter Brenca, who is with the group Friends of the Piscataquis Valley. Earlier this month, the Sierra Club threw its weight behind local groups like this one and announced it would oppose an east west highway.

Brenca and other critics, some of whom were gathered outside the courthouse, worry the project would harm the area's waterways, water quality and habitat for threatened and endangered species. And despite Vigue's assurances, Brenca worries local people could lose their land.

"It's a nice shortcut to Montreal, and that's about it for Maine," Brenca says. "It's a giant swath. And they want to go right through everyone's farm here."

On May 31st, Piscataquis County will hold an evening public forum on the east west highway at Foxcroft Academy. The state feasibility study is expected to be completed by the end of the year.



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