EDDINGTON, Maine — The Maine Department of Transportation is again in hot water with town leaders who are upset about the lack of communication over the last five months regarding the proposed Interstate 395-Route 9 connector.
Selectmen on Wednesday filed a Freedom of Access Act request with Richard Hewes, a DOT attorney, requesting all communications between eight state transportation employees involved with the project.
Town leaders also requested information about any meetings held since the May 16 public hearing in Eddington that drew hundreds of residents, where the proposed highway project was discussed.
“It is in the best interest of the community to be informed, as this project will have a major impact on the town of Eddington,” Town Manager Russell Smith states in the FOAA letter.
The letter points out that the DOT apologized in January for “insufficient outreach by DOT to leaders of the affected communities along the proposed I-395 US Route 9 connector” and also said, “residents of Brewer, Holden, Eddington and Clifton deserve to be fully informed of all decisions and progress. We recognize that it is our obligation to do so, and we will rectify this situation in the future.”
Plans for the proposed connector — designed to ease heavy truck traffic between the Canadian Maritimes and the federal highway system — are in the hands of the Federal Highway Administration, which would pay for the project if approved, DOT spokesman Ted Talbot said Sunday.
“Quite literally, we’re in a holding pattern awaiting the federal agency response,” he said. “There is really nothing happening right now.”
If that is the case, why haven’t DOT officials simply sent out a message to inform the towns, Eddington Planning Board member Gretchen Heldmann, said Sunday.
“It takes one minute to draft an email,” she said. “We’re just asking for updates. We want to know what is going on and want to be kept informed. This is kind of a big deal” for residents along the proposed route.
The DOT and the Army Corps of Engineers both collected comments at and after the public hearing and are awaiting a federal response. Transportation officials are asking the FHA to review a draft environmental impact statement, and the Army Corps is trying to identify the least environmentally damaging option for construction of the two-lane, limited-access highway.
The state’s preferred route would extend I-395 at its Wilson Street junction and would roughly follow the Holden-Brewer line until entering Eddington and connecting with Route 9.
Brewer was so upset about the state’s decision to change its preferred route at the end of 2011 without discussing the matter with them that city councilors unanimously withdraw their support for the connector in March.
The state’s former preferred route, which cut through the center of Holden, would cause a significant environmental impact to around 90 protected vernal pools, at least 28 considered significant vernal pools, and the new preferred route would affect around 11 vernal pools with only two listed as significant, a map on the project’s website states.
State transportation officials have been studying a Brewer-Holden-Eddington connector since 2000. When I-395 was extended to Brewer and the Veterans Memorial Bridge was constructed, much of the truck traffic that had used Route 9 in Eddington to connect from Canada to Brewer started using Route 46 as a connector, which prompted residents to request that an alternative route be built.
In the FOAA letter, town selectmen officially requested “all emails that were sent or received that relate to the I-395 US Route 9 Connector project in any way, shape or form from the following individuals: Russ Charette, Judy Gates, Richard Bostwick, Herb Thompson, David Bernhardt, Ken Sweeney, Deane VanDusen and Steve Walker,” between Aug. 1, 2011 and Oct. 17, 2012.
“Specifically, this means emails sent or received with comments about permits, the public hearing, drafts of documents, arrangements for meetings, etc. as they may relate to this project,” the letter states.
The town has requested a waiver of the fee associated for copying “as the information would contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations or activities of government,” the Eddington letter states.
Selectmen also want information on all of the meetings held to discuss the project since the public hearing, “whether explicitly stated as an agenda item or not.”
“The board wants to know of any meetings held, regardless of whether they were interagency meetings or not,” the FOAA letter states. “The board also wants to know about any conference calls held regarding this project and to see any notes taken by the participants.”
Eddington’s town manager contacted his counterparts in Brewer and Holden and was informed that neither has been kept informed about any progress on the project.
“The Maine DOT has not kept the town officials and residents fully informed whatsoever since the public hearing in May,” Smith said. “At the public hearing it was said that the public advisory committee would meet again and as of [Oct. 17, 2012] they have not been contacted either.”
Scheduled interagency meetings have been cancelled and replaced by “working sessions” that are open to the public, but do not allow input from the public, the Eddington town manager said.
“Eddington has a big stake in this project and as town manager I would like to be informed and be able to attend any meeting along with town officials to oversee the process,” Smith said.