Gov. Paul LePage put plans for an east-west highway study on hold Tuesday. Planning should stay on hold until we know the answer to one key question:

Can a project of this size and complexity be completed without the use of eminent domain?

The importance of that single question was highlighted Monday by one of the project’s leading proponents, Sen. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley, when he asked Gov. Paul LePage to hold off on a $300,000 study that Ripley himself had helped push through the Legislature.

The senator’s Somerset County district would be traversed by the proposed 220-mile highway that would stretch from Calais in the east to Coburn Gore in the west.

The most passionate proponent of the limited-access, high-speed highway is Peter Vigue, CEO of the engineering and construction dynamo Cianbro Corp.

Vigue has spent the past four years promoting the highway, which he passionately believes can jump-start the economy of rural central Maine. Vigue is a convincing spokesperson for the project and has traveled widely to promote his vision.

But his determination to see this project through has also earned him equally outspoken and passionate critics.

Vigue dismisses many as out-of-state ecoradicals intent on thwarting any type of development.

But serious opposition also has come from property owners and communities along the proposed route who fear their land might be taken without their consent.

At issue is the government’s power of eminent domain, the power to take property for a greater public purpose after paying compensation. In practice, that compensation is often determined by a court, and is often less than the original property owner had hoped to receive.

Although Vigue’s east-west highway would be a private toll road, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that a government can move ownership of property from one private owner to another private owner for economic development purposes.

Vigue, meanwhile, has pledged that his financial backers would not use eminent domain to obtain land for the highway.

But property owners are skeptical, and they should be. It is impossible to see how a project of this scope could be completed without that tool.

First, every homeowner, farmer and business along the proposed route will know this road is coming and raise their asking price accordingly. Will Vigue’s backers be willing to bargain with each and every person who thinks their property is worth two or three times the tax valuation?

That could push the cost of the project into the stratosphere.

Even if it is possible to sign those deals, the project will run into farmers, homeowners and business people who are simply unwilling to sell, no matter the price.

What then? Re-engineer around them? That would be costly and impractical.

Sen. Thomas, based upon the concerned reactions of his constituents, now wants an amendment to Maine’s Constitution to prohibit the state from using eminent domain to take land.

Even if that is legally and politically possible, that amendment would constitute a poison pill for this project which, we believe, cannot realistically be accomplished with handshake agreements alone.

Again, the unavoidable question: Is Maine willing to use eminent domain to build an east-west highway?

If the answer is no, then Gov. LePage should call off the entire project now rather than waste $300,000.

Sun Journal, Lewiston (Aug. 14)