One of the most interesting economic development ideas to come down the pike in awhile is Peter Vigue’s plan for an east-west highway across the heart of Maine, running from the Maritime provinces to Sherbrooke, Quebec, where it would connect to major highways serving the American Midwest.
Roads in northern New England run north and south – literally so in New Hampshire and Vermont. In Maine, I-95 runs from the southwest corner generally northeast, though it ends at the Canadian border near Houlton, nearly 200 miles shy of the northern tip.
The lack of major road and rail connections beyond the big bridge at Kittery has long been advanced as one reason for the underdevelopment of northern Maine – which has only become more acute as the state’s rural counties shed jobs.
But the east-west highway, studied for 40 years, has the patina of myth – not quite El Dorado, but certainly not an imminent addition to the Interstate Highway System.
Every federal study comes to the obvious conclusion – there’s nowhere near enough money in Maine’s present or future federal transportation allotment to build such a road. Even a senator with the combined pull of Margaret Chase Smith, Ed Muskie, George Mitchell and Bill Cohen wouldn’t make much difference. And Mike Michaud, patient laborer on the House Transportation Committee, comes from a two-member delegation in a 435-member chamber.
Enter Peter Vigue. The 65-year-old chairman of Cianbro, by far the state’s largest and most successful construction company, was an oft-rumored candidate for governor in 2010. Spontaneous “Vigue for Governor” bumper stickers popped up – not something you saw for anyone who actually made the race.
Vigue might have been a formidable candidate. Under his direction, Cianbro has acquired a national reach, building bridges and high-tech modules around the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.
Vigue also stands out among business leaders. Ask him what Maine businesses need to succeed, he doesn’t trot out the usual “cuts taxes and government regulation” spiel.
He’s a strong believer that companies should take responsibility for the well-being of employees. Cianbro has pioneered safety improvements and controls health care costs through wellness programs and lifestyle incentives.
All in all, it’s a stronger resume than, say, managing a retail chain selling surplus items.
Vigue’s big idea is simple – attract private investment to provide the $2 billion the 220-mile highway would require, and charge tolls sufficient to make it a going proposition. The key audience is the Canadian (and eastern Maine) truckers who now drive all the way around Maine on the far-superior system of Canadian roads.
Though Vigue hasn’t made the numbers public, he insists he can attract such investment. It isn’t pie-in-the-sky. A Spanish consortium bought a major Chicago toll road and the Indiana Toll Road, for instance.
Building a highway from scratch apparently hasn’t been done before in this country, but Vigue says it can be – in part because there’s a relatively unfettered right-of-way across Maine, employing logging road corridors. He persuaded a bipartisan legislative majority to authorize a $300,000 study, to be repaid by the developer if the road is built.
Vigue receives a generally warm reception from business interests, along with some protests from individuals who fear they might be displaced, or are worried about environmental consequences. Vigue insists eminent domain won’t be used, since it’s a private project, and that may satisfy landowner objections.
No such road can be built, however, without environmental disruption. Although Vigue says the route would pass well south of the Maine Woods, as traditionally defined, it would still have serious impacts on wildlife habitat, migration routes and overall populations.
There would need to be extensive mitigation, and creativity will be needed. Since the major environmental laws were passed in the 1970s, there hasn’t been a new highway built anywhere of this scope.
That challenge, too, may not be insurmountable, but Vigue has been testy when challenged. At a meeting in Lincoln, he said, “It’s very inappropriate to mislead people and not tell the truth and to look after your own personal desires at the expense of others.” A newspaper headline said he objected to “bullying” by opponents. While it’s not clear he used that word, he’d be wise to avoid it.
Some opposition to windpower installations, LNG tanks and new highways is reasoned, some not. But everyone gets a say, and Vigue will have to get used to nay-sayers.
Confrontation may appear to be working at the moment in Augusta, but it’s not a winning hand for an east-west highway. For that, only patience, persistence and a cool head will produce success.