• EMINENT-DOMAIN FEARS The highway "has united people across political lines," says Chris Buchanan, of Defending Water for Life in Maine. She is coordinating the grass-roots resistance.
Although Vigue changed his tune — from saying he hadn't ruled out eminent domain to saying it wouldn't be used — many locals along the highway's general route don't believe him.
Vigue changed his tune on another issue directly relevant to the amount of land in play. He at first had talked enthusiastically about a 2000-foot-wide right-of-way for the highway, an electricity transmission line, and a natural-gas pipeline. A nearly half-mile-wide corridor times 220 miles equals 53,000 acres or 83 square miles.
He later reduced the width to 500 feet for most of the highway. (By comparison, the Maine Turnpike right-of-way is generally 300 feet.) Vigue's shrunken, fuzzier intentions on the corridor also have met disbelief.
Transportation experts are more than skeptical that a superhighway-utility corridor across Maine could be built without the state taking property.
"They're just going to convince owners to sell land?" Egan asks, with incredulity. In fact, an MDOT official told the Phoenix earlier this year that eminent domain would be used as a last resort.
Among the most adamant opponents to the seizing of private property by the government are Ron-Paul-libertarian, Tea Party Republicans, who often don't see eye-to-eye with corporate Republicans. (Ask Mitt Romney about this last point.)
Senator Thomas was paying the most attention to this Tea Party constituency when, in a huge about-face, he not only opposed going forward with the highway study but also said he would introduce a constitutional amendment in the next legislative session to ban the practice of eminent domain. (First, of course, he has to survive the election, now not at all certain.)
Such a constitutional amendment is unlikely to go anywhere because it probably would prevent many new roads from being built, not to mention other public-infrastructure projects.
• GRASS-ROOTS AND ENVIRONMENTAL-GROUP OPPOSITION The home-grown environmentalist opposition sprang up with striking speed. Many people in the poor but beautiful countryside that the highway would traverse — hailing from communities like Dexter, Dover-Foxcroft, and Guilford — saw their tranquil way of life threatened.
"Loss of Maine's unique mystique" is how Buchanan describes the peril.
These people feared Vigue's brand of promised regional economic renewal. They turned out in scores and even hundreds to protest whenever Vigue, bodyguards in tow, gave speeches in small towns. Thomas told the Maine Today papers that he had stepped onto a "hornets' nest."
Environmental specifics — the highway's menace to water, wildlife, and air quality — provoked opposition from the Natural Resources Council of Maine and the Sierra Club. With sizeable memberships, seasoned staffs, and relatively deep pockets, these also are formidable opponents. Smaller groups joined in, including Restore: The North Woods, the Forest Ecology Network, and Environment Maine.
• FISH AND WILDLIFE OBJECTIONS Fishermen and –women, hunters, and other wildlife enthusiasts have not yet expressed opposition to a superhighway cutting the state in half. The highway would destroy or severely impact scores if not hundreds of trout streams and thousands of acres of animal habitat.
Judging by news-media coverage, the issue has yet to be discussed within the fish and wildlife constituencies. But the opposition could be considerable because these folks number in the hundreds of thousands of Mainers and out-of-staters from all walks of life.
"To get to your hunting camp in the North Woods, you might have to go 40 miles out of your way because the corridor will block your current direct passage," says Jonathan Carter, of the Forest Ecology Network.
More important, animal movements would be blocked. Vigue has said some "wildlife bridges" over the highway could be constructed. But studies show wildlife-overpass effectiveness is limited.
Under environmental law, protection for animals has "to be designed for specific species," Egan notes. An EPA report quotes one study: "Foxes, raccoons, skunks, and coyotes [appear] to shun interstate rights of way." That study also found superhighways accounted for more than three-quarters of all animals killed on all roads.
At $1-million-plus a bridge, a lot of animal overpasses on a 220-mile road might be too expensive for a developer.
• INTERNATIONAL OPPOSITION TO UTILITY USE There would be widespread environmentalist opposition to a nonrenewable-energy corridor, especially if it were designed to transport controversial tar-sands oil from Alberta to Maritimes ports, as some environmentalists see likely.
Carter says international environmental-group opposition also would exist because the highway would contribute to global warming through the cutting down of forests (they are "carbon sinks") and the increased carbon dioxide produced by thousands of vehicles using the highway daily.
• SECRECY In 2010 the Legislature passed, with no debate, a "Public-Private Partnership" law for transportation projects, which MDOT has said it would use for this project. The law has a clause exempting planning for such a road from the state Freedom of Access (freedom-of-information) law.
If the highway were built as a totally private project, there would be little to no requirement for the planning to be made public, including for feeder-road widening and interchanges. Maine people might find this secrecy hard to take.
• ENVIRONMENTAL PERMITTING Many permits would be needed from state and federal agencies — such as Maine's Department of Environmental Protection and Land Use Regulation Commission and agencies administering the federal Clean Water Act and endangered-species law.
The Clean Water Act is especially pertinent. The highway would have to cross or go near countless ponds, streams, and bogs, as well as cross the big Penobscot and Kennebec Rivers. It would have "major permitting challenges," Egan says.
Even a supporter like Maria Fuentes, Augusta's top lobbyist for highway interests, admits "the permitting may just be impossible."
If agencies approved the highway, court battles would ensue. The prospect of a drawn-out struggle would weigh heavily on a would-be developer's decision to attempt to build the highway.
• RAILROAD ALTERNATIVE Federal environmental law requires the "least environmentally damaging practicable alternative" be considered before a project is permitted.
A much less environmentally damaging and cheaper alternative already exists for moving freight and passengers between New Brunswick and Quebec: upgrading the active but little-used railroad line crossing Maine to the north of the proposed highway. (See map.) Half the line is owned by an American company, the other half by a Canadian firm.
But the modest use now of this rail alternative speaks poorly of the traffic potential of an East-West Highway. Passenger service ended in 1994, and "if there's a great hue and cry for delivering freight," why isn't the railroad doing this? asks Mills.