AUGUSTA, Maine — Concern about whether the construction of an east-west highway through rural central Maine would require the taking of private and public land has prompted a longtime supporter of the project to ask Gov. Paul LePage to slow it down.

Democrats characterized Monday’s development as “political cover” against a concept that has proven to be unpopular.

Sen. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley, said Monday that he asked LePage on Friday to suspend a Maine Department of Transportation feasibility study on the project until at least the next legislative session, when Thomas expects to sponsor a bill in an attempt to change Maine’s constitution to bar eminent domain takings of private property. Eminent domain is a legal mechanism that allows government bodies to take private property, usually paying fair market value, in order to accomplish projects that are deemed to be for the public good.

Thomas, an eight-year member of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, said he supports the east-west highway proposal being pushed by Peter Vigue, chairman of Cianbro Corp. in Pittsfield, but only if it can be accomplished without any eminent domain takings.

Thomas sponsored a successful bill in the last legislative session that called for the Maine Department of Transportation to conduct a feasibility study on whether an east-west toll highway can support itself while creating jobs that would slow the outmigration of young people from Maine. The study will cost the state an estimated $300,000.

“People have worked hard all their lives for what they’ve got and they don’t want to give it up,” said Thomas. “If we have to stop the study to put this to rest, let’s do it. People need to feel safe in their homes.”

Rep. Herbert Clark, D-Millinocket, who is running against Thomas for the Senate District 27 seat in the November election, said Monday that Thomas is seeking “political cover” from an issue that is unpopular with his constituents. Clark was a sponsor of Thomas’ bill calling for the feasibility study in the last legislative session but he said Monday he regrets signing onto the bill without first doing more research. Clark said if elected he will work to repeal it.

“[Thomas has] been in hot water in his district,” said Clark. “I’ve been going door to door and there haven’t been too many people in that county who are in favor of either the corridor or the study. We’re all looking for a silver bullet for economic development, but it doesn’t look good for the east-west highway.”

Rep. Edward Mazurek, D-Rockland, ranking Democrat on the Transportation Committee and its former chairman, said Monday he opposes the project and couldn’t think of any circumstances that would change his mind, though Mazurek also supported the bill calling for the feasibility study when it was in committee, but voted against it in the House.

“We need more information,” he said. “We’re talking about a really major project. We’re talking about a disruption in the whole vision of Maine. There has to be a lot more concrete evidence that it’s a needed economic tool in the state of Maine.”

Thomas responded to those comments by saying he is merely trying to ensure that enough information comes to light to help people — both in government and private citizens — make the right decisions.

“I’m just listening to my constituents,” he said. “I don’t think they have anything to worry about but they’re convinced that they do. I think it’s still a good idea, but I think that we need to slow it down.”

Vigue said Monday he supports both of Thomas’ initiatives and repeated a pledge he has made before: That the east-west highway project can be accomplished without any eminent domain takings and without encroaching on public lands protected by conservation measures.

Vigue said he is studying various routes for the 220-mile highway through Maine and that his chief criteria are cost-effectiveness, efficiency and a route that is as unobtrusive as possible to private property owners and public lands. Vigue proposes to develop the highway as a private venture, which he said is rare in Maine but becoming more common across the country as local, state and federal budgets are stretched.

“We were very supportive of the Legislature putting forward an independent investment-grade study, and we continue to support that decision,” said Vigue during a telephone interview Monday. “If they believe that because of the current information that they have that the study would be inconclusive, certainly we support putting off the study until we’ve been able to develop more specific information in terms of the routing. We’ve made it very clear in our public meetings that we’ve had across the state that there will be no eminent domain.”

Thomas said he prefiled a concept draft of a bill on Friday that would outlaw eminent domain takings. He said such a change would require approval by two-thirds of the Legislature followed by a successful statewide referendum.

“I still believe that the study will reveal the economic benefits of an east-west highway, but I want it done in an atmosphere of trust and thoughtful deliberation,” said Thomas. “It’s important that this process be done right. I am asking that this study be delayed until we have safeguards in place to protect private property rights.”

Adrienne Bennett, director of communications for LePage, said Monday that while the governor is a supporter of the east-west highway project in concept, he agrees with Thomas about personal property rights and the dangers of eminent domain takings.

“He acknowledges Sen. Thomas’ request, that there may be some potential issues here and that more information is needed to move forward,” said Bennett. “The governor is a firm believer in private property rights. We want to be very clear that that is the case.”

Bennett said LePage demonstrated his opinion on private property rights by supporting a controversial legislative proposal earlier this year, known as the “takings bill,” which would have allowed property owners to sue the state if any new regulations lead to a loss of 50 percent or more in property value. The bill, which had strong Republican support, was killed in the Senate in May, with some legislators suggesting it needs more work in the next session.

Bennett said the governor’s staff will meet with officials from the Department of Transportation this week to discuss the timing of the east-west highway feasibility study.

Ted Talbot, spokesman for the Maine Department of Transportation, said the department has been evaluating and re-evaluating what the scope of the study should be, and it has been growing.

“We are aware of Sen. Thomas’ press release and we are looking into how it impacts the study,” said Talbot.

Thomas said his latest efforts around the project were attempts to keep constituents informed.

“The reason we put this in place was for transparency,” he said. “We thought it was a good idea. I never expected to step in a hornet’s nest like this.”

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.