AUGUSTA, Maine — A resolve to ensure continued legislative oversight of the planning, creation and operation of an east-west highway in Maine caused dissention in the Senate Tuesday night, where Democrats sought to control the process and Republicans said it’s a private venture that should be left alone.

The possibility of building an east-west highway in Maine has been debated for years, but gained traction when Cianbro Corp. CEO Peter Vigue started planning for it. Vigue, who proposes to pay for the more than $2 billion, 220-mile project with revenues from tolls, has said he hopes to have a detailed route proposed by the end of this year. The highway would run from Calais to Coburn Gore and provide a trucking route from the Canadian Maritimes to points west of Maine.

At issue Tuesday night in the Senate was a resolution that the Legislature wants to “protect the public interest with regard to this private road proposal and be certain the negative impacts are as minimal as possible” and to “ensure there is ongoing legislative oversight for any proposal that comes forward and to require an in-depth agency review of all potential impacts to the state’s environment, small communities and existing economies along any proposed route.”

Sen. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley, said he saw the resolution as the Legislature infringing on a private venture.

“We have a company coming forward that wants to spend $2 billion,” said Thomas. “Before we send a message to the world that Maine is anti-business and against improving our economy, let’s take a good look at this,” he said.

Sen. Ronald Collins, R-Wells, agreed.

“This resolution, to me, is doing the wrong thing,” he said. “It’s not promoting the concept of the east-west highway. We should be promoting this as vigorously as we can.”

Sen. John Patrick and others said they didn’t see the resolve as anti-business at all, but rather a method to protect the state if the project moves forward.

“On behalf of the people we represent, we want to protect the public interest with regard to this private road proposal,” said Patrick.

Sen. Edward Mazurek, D-Rockland, chairman of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, said he sees the project as fraught with pitfalls.

“It’s basically a road to nowhere,” he said. “How many jobs will be created in this 220-mile strip? Maybe one or two gas stations. It’s going to divide the state even more than it’s already divided. It would basically benefit one or two very powerful individuals while the rest of us would lose the character of Maine for a dollar bill. I will not support that. Are we going to concrete over our natural resources so we can get some 18-wheelers quicker from the ocean to New Hampshire?”

Sen. Roger Sherman, R-Houlton, said the highway could lead to untold economic development in Maine, Canada and neighboring states.

“It’s sad to hear some of the conversations here,” he said.

Senate Majority Leader Seth Goodall, D-Richmond, said the resolution had nothing to do with anyone’s stance on the project.

“No one is opposed to the east-west highway as it pertains to this resolution,” he said. “What this is about is making sure we do it right and oversee it properly.”

The Senate voted on party lines, 20-15, to adopt the resolution, which passed through the House unanimously earlier in the day without a roll-call vote.

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.