• UNCLEAR PUBLIC AND PRIVATE BENEFITS For environmental-agency approval, the highway "has to have overwhelming public benefit," says Egan. And for banks and corporations to finance it, a private benefit (profitability) would have to be foreseeable.
Vigue foresees gigantic container ships coming to Maritimes ports and Eastport's deepwater harbor. Trucks would use the highway to haul containers to Montreal, Toronto, and Chicago.
It's true that when the Panama Canal's widening is completed in 2015, there will be competition for giant-container-ship traffic. But big ports on the East Coast, like New York, Baltimore, and Miami, already are dredging harbors and erecting huge cranes to grab this traffic.
And "containers go where the people are," says Matt Jacobson, a former railroad and business-development official and now an executive at Oxford Networks, a communications company.
He adds: "I don't think any port in Maine is going to benefit" from increased ship traffic because of the Panama Canal widening.
Even if Canada benefitted from container traffic, American regulators would determine whether the highway project would go forward. Benefits to the United States and Maine would be considered — not benefits to Canada.
Vigue says the highway would revitalize Maine's "hollow middle," as it calls it, but he has provided few specifics. Any economic benefit within Maine, say the highway's opponents — besides some service-station jobs — would mostly go to big, out-of-state corporations, especially Canadian ones.
Canada already takes much wood from Maine to mill into lumber. Buchanan says the highway "would give Canada even more of a competitive advantage by streamlining their access to port." (In 2008 Vigue's team suggested to Mainebiz that the highway financier might be foreign.)
Many opponents fear the highway-plus-corridor is a scheme for an economic and environmental rape of Maine by big corporations, Canadian or American. Think: mountaintop mining, industrial groundwater removal, wind towers on the peaks, trash hauled into the state in enormous quantities.
Profitability for the highway owner would depend on toll amounts multiplied by traffic volume. A Vigue study in 2008 estimated tolls across Maine would need to be $100 to $200 for trucks and $25 to $50 for cars. Those sums might make it too expensive for many cars and some trucks.
A 1999 state study found a Calais-Coburn Gore highway to be not economically sound. "I don't understand the practicality, the utility of it," says Mills, of the highway.
• HIGH COST The cost is apt to be much, much more than the $2.1 billion in Vigue's 2008 projections.
The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials doesn't have cost-per-mile numbers of constructing superhighways because the numbers vary widely around the country, a spokesman says.
But a Michigan Department of Transportation official says the $44 million a mile cost to build a superhighway through a rural-suburban area in Michigan is possibly "comparable to what is proposed in Maine." At that rate, a 220-mile highway would cost $9.7 billion. Although Vigue's route might be cheaper to build on because it goes through a lot of forest, even half of $9.7 billion is more than twice his number.
The purchase of land alone for the highway might cost $1.4 billion, using International Paper's calculation — revealed in a footnote to a federal appeals court decision — of how much it expects to receive from an East-West Highway developer for its 55 miles of Washington County's Stud Mill Road ($353 million, or $6.4 million a mile).
The highway will be expensive, but a corporate developer will pay for it, not the taxpayer, right? But a developer usually needs to borrow money for such a project, and that might be too expensive.
According to Mills, a private developer for sizeable projects must pay a 10-to-15 percent interest rate on the money it borrows, contrasted with the 2-to-4 percent interest that government outfits like the Maine Turnpike Authority pay to bondholders. (Vigue's financial projections have the private owner borrowing at 8 percent.)
This difference in the cost of borrowed money exists because interest earned by investors in public-agency bonds is exempt from federal and state income tax, along with the lower risk of lending money to a unit of government.
This is why, Mills says, that private financing of projects like the East-West Highway "is so rare here in the US." Some experts think it would be unprecedented.
• BORDER DELAYS AND FEDERAL EXPENSE Even if significant traffic on the highway could be expected, post-9/11 Homeland Security, immigration, and customs controls probably mean big truck and tourist delays at the Canadian border.
Border controls are "a huge bureaucratic impediment," Mills says. The US consul in Quebec has said Canadians are "intimidated" by the US border.
With border delays, Canadian trucks "aren't going to save any time" by crossing Maine east-to-west instead of going over the top of the state, as many of them do now, says Jonathan Carter.
If the highway were built, the tiny US-Quebec frontier post at Coburn Gore would have to be enormously expanded. Given the nearly $60-million price tag for the recent upgrade of the US border station at Calais, tens of millions of dollars would have to be appropriated by Congress — and by Canada on its side — to improve the border crossings.
This optional spending is hard to justify in an era when governments have a hard time meeting essential expenditures.
• THREATS TO MOUNTAIN TOURISM For recreationists and businesses serving them in the forested Maine mountains, the highway would be a dramatic intrusion.
For example, it would be very visible from the state-owned Bigelow Preserve, which encompasses the 12-mile-long Bigelow Mountain Range and many miles of the AT. The preserve was created in a citizens' initiative — a statewide vote — in 1976. Its defenders are passionate. (Disclosure: the author led that effort.)
Mountain tourism in the Bigelow-Sugarloaf area is significant, evidenced by the creation of the Maine Huts and Trails system, which now has three huts (small, rustic lodges) along a 45-mile trail. Twelve huts along 180 miles are planned. The trail serves hikers, mountain-bikers, cross-country-skiers, and snowshoers.
The superhighway would have to cross this trail. Opposition from Maine Huts and Trails' powerful corporate backers, like LL Bean, is a possibility.
• FINANCIAL RISK FOR THE PUBLIC Only a few highways in the US have been owned by corporations, but a number of them have gone financially belly-up.
If that happened with the East-West Highway, and the state took it over, the taxpayers would wind up paying for repairs, snow removal, state-police patrols, toll collecting, and other expenses that Vigue now claims would be paid for privately. If the corporate owner couldn't make a go of it, that would likely mean the state, too, would find it a money pit.
Opponents suspect the public would be asked to guarantee loans or kick in cash. Vigue insists no public money will be needed. But the 2010 public-private partnership law sets up a specific legal template for financial sharing between the state and private entities, and state transportation officials have said Vigue's highway would be organized under the provisions of this law.