February 22, 2018
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DOT denies wrongdoing in soliciting bids for east-west highway study

By Christopher Cousins, BDN Staff

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Department of Transportation followed the same process it has used dozens of times when it issued a request for proposals in March related to the proposed east-west highway project through Maine, an official there says.

Kenneth Sweeney, the DOT’s chief engineer, said Thursday that despite a report published in the Portland Press Herald that questioned why the DOT sought requests for proposals for a financial feasibility study before a bill authorizing funding for it had passed the Legislature, the process that has unfolded in recent months is commonplace in Maine and elsewhere.

“Our process is tightly governed by federal and state law,” said Sweeney during a telephone interview. “All processes were adhered to. We didn’t step outside any kind of margin.”

Sweeney and the DOT began exploring the possibility of commissioning a financial feasibility study of the east-west highway, which is under development as a private project by Cianbro president and CEO Peter Vigue, earlier this year — well before the Legislature passed a law calling for the study, which was signed into law by Gov. Paul LePage in April.

On Feb. 7, the department posted a federally mandated State Transportation Investment Program document on its website, which announced a 30-day public comment period related to the east-west highway project.

“It alerts the public to the fact that we’re perhaps going to undertake a study,” said Sweeney. “It just says that we’re intending that if everything falls into place, we’re going to proceed with the study.”

On March 18, the department asked a group of four prequalified firms to submit proposals to complete the study, one of which, HNTB, submitted a bid prior to the March 27 deadline. The DOT uses the prequalification process in order to speed up what would be an otherwise weeks- or months-long process of preauditing a bidder, conducting background checks and checking references. Sweeney said there are more than 30 firms on its preauthorized list from inside and outside of Maine which specialize in a range of projects. Typically, requests for proposals are targeted at those firms if the scope of work is expected to cost $1 million or less. Otherwise, the DOT opens up the process to any firm interested in the work.

“We try to be forward-looking,” said Sweeney. “We need to be ready for whatever funding and work comes our way. Actually bringing consultants on and negotiating work takes quite a bit of time. This process has been approved by the state’s purchasers and by the Federal Highway Administration.”

For the east-west highway study, HNTB’s bid was rejected, according to Sweeney, because it became apparent to the DOT that more information about the project — chief of which was where exactly the highway would be built and how it would interact with existing transportation infrastructure — was needed before the department could commission a study of the proper scope. Earlier this week, LePage and DOT officials announced they have delayed the timeline for the study until more information could be gathered.

Despite the law that was unfolding in the Legislature, Sweeney said the DOT has full authority, as well as funding, to conduct feasibility studies anytime it wants. It commissions financial and engineering studies regularly in projects ranging from local intersection approvals to something as massive as the 220-mile Calais-to-Coburn Gore highway proposal by Vigue.

DOT spokesman Ted Talbot said he was “disappointed” in the assertion by sources in the Portland Press Herald story that the DOT had violated the freedom of access laws in the process.

“There’s no reference at all in the Freedom of Access Act of processes that must be followed in getting requests for proposals,” said Talbot. “We ran this by our legal team.”

Sweeney said that if the east-west highway proposal develops, the DOT will use the same process for finding a financial feasibility study consultant.

“We would still look to our general consultants that we have a roster of and put it out to them,” he said.

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