DEXTER, Maine — The Legislature’s decision to fund a $300,000 feasibility study last year to examine the economic viability of a 220-mile privately financed route running from Calais to Coburn Core has sparked a debate about the Piscataquis Valley’s future.

Some, like Cianbro Corp. CEO Peter Vigue, believe the project is the spark to revitalize the state’s economy by making it a focal point in the global economy.

The proponents also believe the corridor would allow for more economical and efficient transportation of goods from Maine, Canada and Europe to U.S. distribution points in the Midwest.

Opponents fear that the proposal would be an economic and environmental boondoggle from which the Dover-Foxcroft area would never recover.

At a July 14 forum, the detractors expressed their concerns to local political candidates about how the highway’s construction would destroy the peaceful lifestyle of rural Maine, ruin the state’s natural resources and profit mostly foreign-based corporations. The opponents also believe the proponents’ ultimate intent is to create a corridor for transporting electricity, natural gas and telecommunications through the state.

The Dexter-Dover Area Towns in Transition sponsored the forum at the Ridge View Community School so residents could personally address those seeking public office with their concerns about the project. The forum drew 175 people, who were near unanimous in their opposition to the project.

The forum’s panel consisted of Rep. Herb Clark, D-Millinocket, Rep. Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, state Senate candidate Sherman Leighton, D-Dexter, state House candidates Dusty Dowse, D-Cambridge, Fred Austin, D-Newport, and Dave Pearson, D-Dexter, and Piscataquis County commissioner candidates Sue Mackey-Andrews, D-Dover-Foxcroft, and Jim Annis, R-Dover-Foxcroft.

The panel, like the audience, mostly had concerns with how Vigue has provided limited information about the plans for constructing the privately financed highway. Vigue has indicated the route would run south of Dover-Foxcroft and north of Dexter, but the detractors want to know which property owners are in the highway’s path.

East-west highway opponents have accused Vigue of not being forthcoming with information about the highway’s route, who the investors are, and the possibility of using the passageway as a corridor to allow mining for gold, pipelines for transporting natural gas and tar sands and the transmission of electricity and telecommunications. Several of the candidates sided with opponents, indicating they also were uncomfortable with the limited available information.

Clark promised the audience he would work to repeal the feasibility study funding if he were elected to the Senate. He complained the legislative process that authorized the feasibility study was tarnished.

He said the bill had a limited amount of debate and “was passed quicker than any other piece of legislation” he’s seen in his 24-year legislative career.

The feasibility study was passed by a 110-24 margin in the House of Representatives. Clark and Sen. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley, were co-sponsors of the bill. When Thomas mentioned at the May 31 Foxcroft Academy forum that Clark had not only voted for it but was one of nine others, including himself , who co-sponsored the bill, the Millinocket representative explained to the Dexter audience that he felt like he was being “used” to promote the highway.

“I voted in favor of the feasibility study and nothing else,” Clark said. “They came to me [and] asked for my support. They said, ‘We helped you with Penobscot Valley paper mills and now its time for help [to] provide some jobs for Piscataquis County.’ The Republicans had the votes and it was going to pass anyway. Whether you like it or not, it’s this type of thing why it’s so important for the Democrats to regain control of the Legislature.”

Fredette and Clark were the only current legislators who attended the Dexter forum. Both voted in favor of the feasibility study. Fredette believed the feasibility study was an important step to promote economic growth in Maine. He recounted how his parents and four brothers were forced to leave Danforth in 1980 due to the lack of work. He remained in Maine to complete his senior year in high school.

“I stayed because I love Maine. I’m a small businessman. I’m raising a family in Newport,” he said. “I know what it’s like out there. I’m afraid my two children may not be able to afford to stay in Maine. There are no jobs. This is why I ran for the Legislature.”

Fredette also expressed his confidence in Vigue. He said he believed that the Cianbro chairman had no stake in the proposal and, at 65 years old, Vigue was involved as a way to improve the state’s economy.

The panel also consisted of two members of the Stop the East-West Corridor group, Chris Buchanan and Hillary Lister. Buchanan challenged the premise that Cianbro didn’t have a stake in the project. She indicated that the company didn’t build roads, but it did construct bridges. She said she believed that several Cianbro business partners would benefit from the corridor establishing a pathway for pipelines and utility transmission lines.

As Sangerville’s town manager, Dave Pearson understands the concerns of those fearing the impact of the east-west highway running through their community. He expressed concern that the construction would create a noise problem for residents adjacent to highway. He also had concerns about not knowing the answers to three questions about the proposal.

Pearson wanted to know who the investors would be, what their financing mechanism is and what the route will be.

“I think these are three fundamental questions that should have been answered before the feasibility study was passed,” Pearson said.

The state Department of Transportation expects the feasibility study to be completed next spring. The DOT then would decide whether to proceed with the east-west highway project. If the proposal moves forward, the agency would solicit bids and choose a viable investors group to construct the proposed highway.

The investors would need to receive permits from the various municipal planning boards

to build the highway and any other commercial ventures running along the route.