Peter Vigue, CEO of Maine's big construction company Cianbro, has recently been successful in promoting to the state's politicians his plan for a 220-mile, limited-access, privately owned toll highway bisecting Maine from New Brunswick to Quebec. It's the latest incarnation of an idea usually referred to as the East-West Highway.
As the issue heats up, though, he may have a more difficult time with the public. Protesters are starting to plague him. And he doesn't exactly have a gentle touch with the press: He had me ejected from a meeting to which I had been invited when I simply tried to cover a speech he was giving.
In early April the Legislature and Republican Governor Paul LePage approved a Department of Transportation "traffic and revenue" study of the highway. The study is estimated to cost taxpayers $300,000, although the new law doesn't specify an upper dollar limit. The developer is supposed to pay back the state upon the highway's "final authorization."
The study's approval stimulated opposition to the highway. On the evening of April 12 Vigue was scheduled to speak at the Senator Inn in Augusta to a group called Women's Transportation Seminar. An hour before he arrived, about 20 people began picketing outside the hotel. They carried signs declaring "Industrial Corridors Kill Towns and Ecosystems" and "Don't Cut ME in Two."
Protesters see the highway as hugely environmentally destructive and as benefitting only large Canadian and American corporations. They say it would provide few permanent jobs for Mainers, encourage corporate export of water and wood chips, and decrease Maine's appeal to tourists.
Many of the protesters were associated either with Occupy Augusta or an organization, Defending Water for Life in Maine, that has made opposition to the highway its chief cause.
The major environmental groups, too, are starting to pay attention. The Natural Resources Council of Maine is opposed to it, though NRCM representatives tell me they hadn't been able to focus on the study bill in the recent legislative session. Ted Koffman, executive director of the Maine Audubon Society, says his group has yet to take an official position but is concerned about the highway's potential to fragment wildlife habitat.
The evening before Vigue's speech, I had emailed the event's organizer, Robyn Saunders, a request to cover it. In the morning she replied: "We look forward to seeing you there tonight. Please be sure to grab your printed name tag on the way in. Thanks!"
When I arrived at the Senator and first interviewed protesters, I couldn't help noticing the plainclothes security men spread out in the parking lot, as if a presidential candidate were inside. The mostly older picketers seemed orderly.
Inside, a big surprise awaited me. After picking up my badge, as I chatted with some of the 30 or so people waiting for Vigue to speak, a man who introduced himself as the hotel manager told me I had to leave.
After my arguments didn't move him, and I couldn't get a satisfactory explanation of what was happening from Saunders, I went to Vigue, whom I had never met. I asked him to please explain to the manager that it was okay that I, a reporter, be allowed to stay. I just wanted to hear his arguments for the highway. "I'm not in charge here," Vigue responded. The hotel manager escorted me out.