EDDINGTON, Maine — Town officials want to know how the state chose the preferred route for the planned Interstate 395-Route 9 connector, so four months ago they filed a Freedom of Access Act request to see documents the state compiled in making its choice.
They recently learned that the town will be getting the documents, and others related to the controversial connector project are being posted on the Maine Department of Transportation’s website.
The state’s preferred route, identified as 2B-2, 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.
Planning board member Gretchen Heldmann, who had earlier filed her own FOAA request, filed a lawsuit on Jan. 11, 2013, against the Maine Department of Transportation saying it failed to provide the public documents requested.
When selectmen met the following week in January, they asked town attorney Charlie Gilbert to get involved and he issued a letter to the MDOT on Jan. 24.
“He gave them until Feb. 11 [to turn over the requested documents],” Town Manager Russell Smith said Friday.
The materials requested by the town are being collected, but because of the “breadth of the request,” the MDOT asked for an extension until Feb. 18, 2013 to complete the task, Bangor attorney Jason Donovan, who has been retained by the Maine Department of Transportation, wrote in his Jan. 29 response letter.
Selectmen filed the Freedom of Access Act request in October requesting all communications issued between August 2011 and September 2012 between eight state transportation employees involved with the project. The state changed its preferred route to 2B-2 a year ago and the decision stunned local town officials and residents because they were not informed.
Town leaders also requested information about any meetings held since the May 16, 2012, public hearing in Eddington that drew hundreds of residents, where the proposed highway project was discussed.
“It will take approximately 52 hours to compile the documents” and MDOT officials estimate the cost of making copies to be $520. They denied a request from Eddington to waive the copying fee, “given the breadth of other information on the I-395/Rt. 9 that has been made publicly available, the release of the emails at no cost to the Department would not ‘contribute significantly to public understanding of the’ project,” Donovan said in his letter to the town.
He said more than 1,500 emails would need to be reviewed to ensure they contained no confidential information before they are released.
“We’re hoping for all the emails and all the documents. Everything they have that dealt with the I-395 connector and how 2B-2 came about,” Smith said. “It will be interesting to see what we get.”
It is in the best interest of the community to be informed, because this project will have a major effect on the town, he said.
Dozens of routes have been considered over the last 13 years. After the state announced it changed its preferred route in January 2012, the MDOT quickly issued an apology. Brewer officials were so upset, city councilors in April voted unanimously to withdraw their support for the project.
Plans for the proposed connector — designed to ease heavy truck traffic between the Canadian Maritimes and the federal highway system — are in a holding pattern while responses to the draft environmental impact statement are being strengthened and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services reviews the biological assessment, MDOT project manager Russell Charette said.
“The formal consultation process [for the biological assessment] may take up to 155 days to complete,” he said.
“That’s another six months,” Smith said.
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.
Donovan also responded to Heldmann’s lawsuit in a Jan. 24 letter, telling her that the information she requested would be posted on the I-395-Route 9 transportation study’s website, i395-rt9-study.com.
New items were posted on Friday, Charette said. They are listed under “recent activities” and may require viewers to refresh the Web page to see the updated information, he said.
When responding to Heldmann, Donovan said the MDOT disputes her claim that the department “rejected or otherwise refused to respond” to her, and added that the Department has decided to publish the documents she requested on the I-395-Route 9 transportation study’s website.
“Rather than proceed with litigation, I would suggest that the parties agree to an extension,” Donovan said. “This would allow the Department time to compile and upload the requested documents to the website.”
After the documents are online, the MDOT would like Heldmann to dismiss her complaint, the attorney said.
Eight documents were uploaded on Friday, but two had nothing to do with her request, Heldmann said.
She said she filed her Freedom of Access Act request because the state selected 2B-2, which was originally eliminated from the list of alternatives in 2002, based on analyses that have never been published.
“They are referencing these documents,” she said, adding they should be available for review. “We’re just asking for the supporting data about how their decision was made.”