EDDINGTON, Maine — Though the purpose of a public hearing Wednesday night was to gather public comment for an environmental impact study, the roughly 200 people who turned up were more concerned about the Interstate 395-Route 9 connector’s impact on people.
Some of those who took to the microphone in the Eddington School gym came armed with questions, complaints or both about what might happen to the value of their homes, what it might mean for economic development along Route 9 — Eddington’s only commercial corridor — and their quality of life.
At issue is a proposed Brewer-Holden-Eddington connector road that aims to ease heavy truck traffic between the Canadian Maritimes and the federal highway system. State and federal transportation officials started studying the connector before 2000.
Maine Department of Transportation officials named 2B-2 their preferred route late last year. That option would extend I-395 at its Wilson Street junction and roughly would follow the Holden-Brewer line, mostly on the Brewer side, and then enter Eddington, where it would connect to Route 9.
The DOT and the Federal Highway Administration also officially are considering two other alternatives — 5A2B-2 and 5B2B-2 — which are similar to 2B-2, and a “no build” option.
But because 2B-2 is virtually the same as the 2B route MDOT eliminated from its list of 70-plus alternatives in late 2002, the decision to put 2B-2 at the top of the list stunned town officials and residents of the three communities when they learned about it in late December. The MDOT quickly issued an apology.
Since April 2009, the preferred route had been 3EIK-2, which met the original DOT study requirements and would have displaced only two homes. That option reportedly was taken off the table because the Army Corps had concerns about vernal pools.
Russell Charette, the state Department of Transportation’s project manager for the connector, said last month that while he understood affected residents’ frustrations, as MDOT sees it, 2B-2 would have the least effect on homes and the environment.
As a public safety volunteer, Eddington resident Ben Pratt said, his main concern about the project was safety — which he did not believe would improve if the connector is built.
“I’m a vernal pool guy,” Pratt, a former Democratic state representative, said. “I want to see us protect vernal pools. I don’t apologize for that.
“It’s a solution looking for a problem,” Pratt said. “We have a problem [but] this doesn’t this doesn’t [address] it. … I have seen too many dead people from wrecks on Route 46 and Route 9 and I don’t want to see any more of them. I don’t see how adding this preferred route … benefits anyone.
“My personal opinion is no build is the cheapest, no build is the least environmentally destructive and no build keeps our community put together. … We are already divided ideologically in a lot of ways. We don’t need to be divided [physically] right smack down the middle with this road. It’s not worth it. It’s not good for our community,” he said.
Many of the nearly 20 area residents who spoke up told federal and state transportation officials that the connector shouldn’t be built — that it would not solve regional traffic problems and it would be of no benefit to those who would have to live along it.
Brewer councilors and Eddington selectmen have thrown their support behind the no-build option. During the hearing, Eddington Selectman Joan Brooks delivered a petition opposing the connector signed by 390 residents.
Eddington Selectman Charles Baker Jr., a lifelong resident of his town, brought a list of 26 questions compiled by local officials and residents. The questions ranged from what the project’s real cost would be to who benefits most — “Canadian truckers or the citizens of Maine.”
Though officials from the Maine Department of Transportation, the Federal Highway Administration and the Army Corps of Engineers offered introductory remarks and brief project recaps, they did not respond to questions or comments during the more than two-hour hearing, which their moderator described as a “listening session.”
The lack of give-and-take frustrated some attendees, Brewer residents Larry Adams and Rollie Paradis among them.
“I was hoping to get some answers,” said Adams, who has been following the project closely. He said he had submitted 32 questions he wanted answers to before reading a prepared statement pointing out what he sees as inconsistencies among project-related documents.
“One of the most interesting statements in the 300-plus pages of the Draft Environmental Impact Statement is found on Page S19: ‘However, future development along Route 9 in the study area can impact future traffic flow and the overall benefits of the project,’” he said. “How can success of this project be based on the hope that a community will stagnate? This project hangs future development in Eddington.
Eddington Planning Board member Gretchen Heldmann read a five-page single-spaced statement in which she took project officials to task for failing to involve the public in decision making despite its own Public Involvement Plan document.
Heldmann, who noted she has attended several vernal pool training workshops led by Dr. Aram Calhoun, criticized the DOT for the way in which it conducted its vernal pool assessment. Oddly, she said, the department did not use the standard form used by most other state agencies.
“I asked for copies of the vernal pool field data sheets as part of [a Freedom of Access] request and what i got was a mishmash of their own version of field data sheets and field notebooks — with pages ripped out.”