BELFAST, Maine — To the dismay of many and the delight of some, the new Maine Department of Transportation commissioner decided Tuesday to suspend midcoast Maine’s Gateway 1 planning process.
“Given the significant and growing fiscal constraints under which we are operating, our top priority must be to focus our time and scarce resources on existing short-term critical infrastructure needs,” wrote Commissioner David Bernhardt in a letter to the Gateway 1 implementation steering committee.
“I discussed this information with [Gov. Paul LePage] and senior staff in the Administration,” he wrote. “We have come to the conclusion that while Gateway 1 has been a very worthy effort, it does not correspond with the immediate priorities of this administration.”
The news was good for opponents of the plan, some of whom have spoken out about their belief that Gateway 1 is part of a global environmental conspiracy that would weaken private property rights.
“I’m glad that it happened,” opponent Horatio “Ted” Cowan of Rockland said of the DOT’s decision. “It is a radical change in land use regulations. I have a big problem with something that clandestinely tries to do major changes behind the back of the people.”
The Gateway 1 Plan began in 2004, shortly after two high-profile protests that occurred when residents objected to the Maine DOT’s plans to widen Route 1. In 2002, 12 people were arrested in Warren after chaining themselves to trees to prevent their removal. Two years later, 200 people protested the cutting of more than 150 trees in Camden for another widening project.
Now, 16 coastal communities from Stockton Springs to Brunswick are involved in the effort to collaborate with the Maine DOT, the Maine State Planning Office and the Federal Highway Administration on road projects.
But that involvement ended abruptly when the commissioner pulled the plug on the planning.
“It is an absolute travesty that this program has been canceled, especially since hundreds of people have invested so much time in this plan,” Rockland City Councilor Lizzie Dickerson said Wednesday. “The governor is making a mistake. He has a sensible transportation package here. It’s all in place. All he has to do is implement it. Now, he’s going to have to recreate the wheel — or ask his friends at Walmart to recreate it for him.”
Adrienne Bennett, a spokesperson for the governor, said that the only reason the state decided to stop funding the project is because the money wasn’t there.
Dickerson, who was involved in the Route 1 protests in Warren in 2002, said that the “unprecedented” Gateway 1 program was a direct and positive result of that. She dismissed talk that Gateway 1 takes control of local communities as “complete spin.”
“What Gateway 1 will do is allow local communities to take control … so we don’t have gridlock, we don’t have the continuation of unpleasant road situations, the sprawl, all the things that exist to the south of us,” she said. “Unfortunately, it’s been really hard for people to understand.”
Cowan believes he and other opponents understood the connection between the state planning effort and the United Nation’s Agenda 21 plan perhaps better than those who were working on Gateway 21.
Agenda 21 was first adopted by more than 178 governments at a U.N. conference on the environment and development held in Brazil in 1992, and is described on the U.N.’s website as a comprehensive plan of action to be taken globally, nationally and locally by governments and major groups in every area where humans have an effect on the environment.
“There is a direct connection, but I do not doubt that they do not know it,” Cowan said. “People had good intentions in doing this.”
But buried within the pages of Gateway 1’s Corridor Action Plan were land use regulation changes that were hidden from the public, he said, adding that he believed the state’s budget problem was just one of the reasons to end the program.
“I think of it more or less like this: Al Capone was finally taken down, not because he was prosecuted for his crimes, but because he evaded paying taxes,” he said.
Don White, volunteer chairman of the Gateway 1 Implementation Steering Committee said that he was very disappointed and saddened about the state’s decision.
“The DOT, when they brought this idea forward, they said that when it’s all said and done, we’re happy to share certain transportation authority with you,” White said. “That’s what we’ve all been working toward.”
It has cost between $2.2 million and $2.4 million over the last six years, said Chris Mann, the Maine DOT’s project administrator for Gateway 1.
Much of the money was spent on the creation of a long and detailed Corridor Action Plan, completed in July 2009. That plan has won awards, including the 2010 National Award for Rural Smart Growth from the Environmental Protection Agency. It was the first time the award was granted to a Maine project.
“At the heart of the plan is a marriage of land use and transportation,” reads the prologue to the executive summary, which is titled “A New World of Transportation.”
It also has helped coastal communities like Rockland win grant dollars and make smart planning choices, said city planner Rodney Lynch.
“There’s just a wealth of information there,” he said. “Even with cutting funding, there’s so much good stuff in the plan that it can still be used for years down the road. It’s not a dead document.”
Thanks in part to the Gateway 1 plan, Rockland was able to get a $600,000 downtown revitalization Community Development Block Grant. It also won the “plan of the year” award from the Northern New England Chapter of the American Planning Association.
Lynch said that the sudden halt to the planning process leaves him with questions, namely whether or not the state will pay $29,500 for a consultant to do some planning work. The consultant has been hired, the contract has been signed, and the money promised through Gateway 1, he said.
“That’s the big question. We have bills on the table,” Lynch said. “Are you going to be able to honor those particular obligations?”
Mann said that the DOT has agreements with 15 communities, and that the department needs to have more discussion internally before it will make a decision because everything has “happened so quickly.”
“I’ll be providing them with guidance next week,” he said of the towns and cities with outstanding bills.
White and others said that although it has been defunded, Gateway 1 is not dead. There will be a meeting at 5 p.m. Thursday, March 10, at Rockland City Hall chambers for project members and others interested in discussing how to move forward.
“The corridor action plan is a fabulous planning tool,” White said. “It could be the base for some wonderful things to take place in the midcoast.”