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What’s driving the East-West Highway?

Taxpayer dollars, secrecy, and private interests
By LANCE TAPLEY  |  May 2, 2012

EWHighwayIllo_new2_main
Eminent domain!

The government's ability to seize land for a public purpose strikes terror into the hearts of many landowners. This has been a bigger fear since 2005 when the United States Supreme Court, in its Kelo decision, allowed land to be seized by the government to benefit a private developer.

This year, the Cianbro corporation's CEO, Peter Vigue, has been making headway with his proposal for a corporate-developed and -owned, 220-mile, 2000-foot-wide East-West Highway and "communications and utility corridor" crossing Maine from Calais to Coburn Gore. A major selling point is how it supposedly won't involve the taxpayers, except in the tolls that trucks, tourists, and Maine residents will pay to the owner to travel on it.

But Vigue may be looking to the public to help him in many ways — with cash, with its legal muscle, and by shrouding plans for the highway in secrecy.

Already Vigue has gotten taxpayers to chip in. He recently got the Legislature and Republican Governor Paul LePage to assign $300,000 of the Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT) current budget to an East-West Highway feasibility study, for the purpose of attracting investors. The department and LePage are unconcealed cheerleaders for the project.

Other taxpayer dollars clearly would be needed if the highway were to be constructed, including a big new federal border crossing at Coburn Gore in Maine's western mountains. Canadian taxpayers would be asked to significantly upgrade the 60-mile road from the border to Sherbrooke, where the expressway to Montreal begins.

And now it turns out that Vigue is keeping open the possibility of state government aiding him in a crucial way — by confiscating land for the highway.

In an April 24 interview at a Canadian-American "Economic Integration in the Northeast" conference at the University of Maine, in Orono, Vigue told the Phoenix that, while eminent domain is "not a consideration now," he "can't forecast going forward" whether it would be used or not.

Similarly, the MDOT said, in the words of Ted Talbot, its spokesman, that while the department hopes it wouldn't be necessary, eminent domain remains "a last choice."

Eminent domain, however, is "an explosive reality" for the highway, said Peter Didisheim, a lobbyist for the Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM), the state's most prominent environmental group and a highway opponent.

"How else," asked Didisheim, "would you secure and guarantee that the corridor would be available for this massive purpose — unless the state seizes that vast stretch of property, potentially affecting hundreds of property owners?"

A nearly-half-mile-wide, 220-mile-long corridor through Maine would directly occupy 53,333 acres or about 83 square miles. The history of far smaller real-estate developments is rife with tales of people who refused to sell at any price. And the exercise of eminent domain can be thorny. Although property owners whose land is taken by the government are supposed to be paid fair compensation, determining what's fair can trigger extensive court battles.

3PS: PUBLIC-PRIVATE PARTNERSHIPS

Eminent domain is referred to in a little-known law, Title 23, Section 4251, of the state statutes, that the Legislature approved in 2010. It establishes a template for a "public-private partnership" for transportation purposes. Designed for the kind of project Vigue is promoting, it passed without opposition, roll-call votes, or news-media coverage.

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