AUGUSTA — The Senate gave first approval Tuesday to a state-funded feasibility study for a long-debated east-west highway in northern Maine.
The prospect of such a highway between Calais and Coburn Gore has been bandied about and studied for nearly 50 years. However, the estimated $2 billion project has new momentum with Republicans in power and potential private investment.
The 19-15 vote Tuesday divided on party lines, with Republicans supporting the study. The GOP said a privately funded project required some state buy-in if it's to proceed. Republicans argued that an independent study estimated to cost $300,000 would be the first step in initiating a project that could spur job creation and bolster the economy in northern Maine.
Democrats said they were not universally opposed to the project. However, they argued that the state could ill afford the expense when its current transportation infrastructure was under funded. They also questioned whether the bill gave specific direction to the study.
Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, said the bill was a "blank check" that didn't cap the cost of the study at $300,000. Diamond said the study could exceed that estimate.
The bill was sponsored by Sen. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley. Thomas argued Tuesday that the project would have more economic benefits than a "billion-dollar bond."
"Don't let a political squabble get in the way of this," Thomas said.
Several Democrats said the idea had merit. However, they objected to the process and the ambiguity of the study. Some said they could support the bill if several key questions were answered in committee.
Others questioned why the state had to spend additional money on a study that was first reviewed in 1969 by the Maine State Highway Commission and has been explored several times since. At the time, the highway was estimated to cost $450 million.
The Maine Department of Transportation estimates the 230-mile project would cost between $1 billion and $2 billion. Republicans and Gov. Paul LePage believe the study will lure private investment for the project.
The highway has been frequently championed by Cianbro Corp., the state's largest construction company. Cianbro CEO Peter Vigue testified in committee in favor of the bill.
Some environmental groups have opposed the highway, fearing its projected impacts on waterways and forests. Rail advocates have argued that money would be better spent on upgrading and expanding rail lines.
The east-west highway concept was studied extensively in 1999 by the State Planning Office. That study found that the project could have a positive impact on tourism because decreased travel times could lead to Canadian visitors extending their stays in Maine. The report found that the uptick in tourism would mostly benefit existing Maine destinations, not places in northern Maine.
In addition, the report surveyed companies asking if proceeding with the project would make businesses more or less likely to expand. A majority of respondents said the project would not affect such decisions.
The bill, LD 1671, will soon move to the House for consideration. It will ultimately be debated in committee because it has a fiscal note.