AUGUSTA — The difficulty of east-west travel across central Maine — the classic you-can’t-get-there-from-here problem in this mostly rural state — could be solved by a privately owned toll highway, advocates told lawmakers Tuesday.

State Sen. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley, is sponsoring legislation to require the state to spend $300,000 for a feasibility study of an east-west highway. The idea of a highway running roughly from Calais, on the New Brunswick border, to Coburn Gore, on the Quebec border, has been around for more than 40 years. In a 1969 study by the Maine State Highway Commission it was projected to cost $450 million.

Today, it could cost $1 billion to $2 billion, according to the Maine Department of Transportation. The state — Gov. Paul LePage included — wants to pay for a feasibility study that could be used to entice private investors to put up money for the project.

“We need new, innovative ways of funding transformational projects,” said Bruce Van Note, state deputy transportation commissioner. “There’s going to have to be a new way to skin the cat.”

Van Note said the Maine Department of Transportation has money in its planning budget to pay for the study.

He said the department would look to hire an independent firm to do the study, and stressed the importance of hiring someone who would have no future financial interest in the project.

Thomas, who described his district as one of the poorest in Maine, said the study is needed to show investors that the “business model is sound.” After years of hoping the state or federal government could afford to build the highway, he said, it’s time to embrace the idea of private funding.

He thanked Cianbro President Peter Vigue for keeping the idea alive. Vigue, who runs the state’s largest construction company, has championed the project for years. He showed the Legislature’s Transportation Committee slides illustrating why he believes so strongly in the project.

While several people testified in favor of the bill, others turned out to oppose it.

Chris Buchanan, organizer of Defending Water for Life in Maine, said her group objects to the use of public money to study the feasibility of a private project.

The group believes the road would be used mostly by Canadian trucking companies, not Maine people. Also, it is worried about environmental effects.

The group notes that while the route is still undetermined, it would likely cross woodlands and three major rivers.

“There’s a reason people live here,” she said. “If they wanted to live in a place with a thruway with transport trucks, they would live there.”

Diane Messer of Liberty said the state should look into expanding rail access, not build more roads that will encourage greater use of fossil fuels.

“I think it’s a travesty,” she said. “We are violating what we need to do to ensure our health and well being.”

Supporters of the bill included the Associated General Contractors of Maine and the Maine Motor Transport Association.

Tim Doyle, vice president of the transport association, said trucking companies would save hundreds of miles with the road.

Maine Audubon testified neither for nor against the bill, but urged the committee to consider possible environmental effects early in the process. “Quite simply, the impact on some wildlife is disastrous,” said Jenn Gray of Maine Audubon in written testimony.

The committee is scheduled to hold a work session on the bill at 1 p.m. Thursday.

Susan Cover — 620-7015

[email protected]

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