AUGUSTA — The Legislature on Tuesday enacted a bill authorizing a state-funded feasibility study for a long-debated east-west highway in northern Maine.
The Senate voted 18-14 for final passage of LD 1671, a bill that directs the Maine Department of Transportation to commit at least $300,000 for a feasibility study of a project that has surfaced several times over the past 50 years.
Lawmakers had debated whether the state should shell out public money for a project that most likely would be done by a private developer. However, that issue subsided last week when a Republican-sponsored amendment in the House of Representatives mandated that a developer reimburse the state for the study if the project moves forward.
Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, on Tuesday introduced an amendment that would cap the study at $300,000. Diamond has argued that the analysis could cost more than the original estimate.
Republicans in the Senate defeated Diamond's proposal.
The report is expected to move forward soon with a report-back date of Jan. 15, 2013.
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 garnered new momentum with Republicans in power.
They 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 were not opposed to the project, a sentiment reflected in last week's 110-28 vote on the amended version. However, some worried 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.
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."
Opponents outside the Legislature have 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 now estimates the 230-mile project would cost between $1 billion and $2 billion.
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 impact 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 to find out whether 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.