EDDINGTON, Maine — Documents provided to the town under Maine’s Freedom of Access Act reveal that the state Department of Transportation has scaled back the scope and cost of a proposed Interstate 395-Route 9 connector road that would affect local property owners.
Town officials last October filed a FOAA request seeking information about how state transportation leaders selected the preferred route for the multimillion-dollar project.
Planning board member Gretchen Heldmann gave a summary report of the 1,239-page FOAA response at Tuesday’s selectmen’s meeting. According to the report, the documents reveal that MDOT:
• Changed the design criteria and downgraded the limited access highway project to a two-lane rolling rural route. The change reduces the right-of-way needs from 200 feet of width to between 100 and 125 feet over the approximately 5-mile-long route from Brewer to Eddington.
• Determined the cost of the project to be between $61 and $81 million using the rolling route criteria. Using highway construction criteria, the cost estimates ranged from $93 million to $121 million.
• Downplayed some of the 90 or so comments made at last year’s public hearing and by letter or email because they didn’t specifically address the Code of Federal Regulation, which is what is used to define a substantive comment for the connector’s draft environmental impact statement.
“Does it make any difference that at the town meeting [residents], and Brewer, have said they don’t want it?” asked a woman in the front row of the Eddington selectmen’s meeting.
“They are moving ahead,” Heldmann responded. “They are now working on a biological assessment.”
The project has just entered step four of a seven-step process, Heldmann said, referring those interested to the DOT’s website set up to keep residents informed about the proposed road, designed to ease traffic flow for heavy trucks between the Canadian Maritime Provinces and the federal highway system.
MDOT project manager Russell Charette responded Wednesday to Heldmann’s conclusions by saying the state agency’s federal partners asked for a change in the design criteria, that the change would reduce costs, and that all public comments are part of the final report he is finishing.
“It was determined we could meet the purpose and need of the project while reducing the impact on the region,” he said. “We could do that and we could further avoid or minimize the impacts with a rolling rural [route].”
The change in design criteria dates back more than a year, according to documents turned over to the town. Over the last 13 years, the MDOT has considered two-lane and four-lane highway projects and eventually settled on a two-lane highway with a two-lane right of way set aside for possible future growth. The rolling rural route eliminates the potential extra two lanes, reducing the footprint, and also decreases construction requirements.
“What is a rolling rural design? Route 9 is a rolling rural design,” Heldmann said.
In October 2011, the state selected a new preferred route, identified as 2B-2, which would extend I-395 at its Wilson Street junction and roughly follow the Holden-Brewer line until entering Eddington and connecting with Route 9.
There are two similar routes and a “no build” alternative under consideration as well.
Designs for the connector still call for limited access, which means drivers will only be allowed to get on and off the connector at the end of I-395 in Brewer and at the junction with Route 9 in Eddington, Heldmann said.
Some in town asked in their public comments that the connector project be put on hold until decisions are made about whether the privately funded east-west highway project will go forward.
Peter Vigue, chairman and CEO of Cianbro Corp., has spent the last couple of years speaking around the state and Canada about the proposed 220-mile highway across Maine that would connect Calais to Coburn Gore.
Heldmann did not mention it in her presentation, but in one of the letters she posted, Charette summarized comments from MDOT Chief Engineer Ken Sweeney that mention the east-west highway.
“Minimize the discussion of the alternatives connection with the concept of an East-West highway,” the Jan. 13, 2012, email states. “Instead, emphasize the alternative’s regional benefits, connectivity of direct access from I-395 to Route 9, and the safety aspects of the connection.”
Town officials have expressed concern for years about how the transportation project, first considered in 2000, would affect Route 9, the main transportation route through town.
“The Federal Cooperating Agencies asked the [Maine] DOT to take another hard look at using more of the portion of Route 9 in the study area,” a Jan. 12, 2012, letter from William Plumpton, an MDOT consultant from Harrisburg, Pa., to Charette states.
“The DOT took another hard look at Route 9. With the economic downturn and fewer miles being driven, Route 9 has more capacity now than originally thought when the study was initiated,” the consultant said. “In consideration of the status of available funding, now and in the foreseeable future, the DOT ‘rightsized’ the project to use as much of Route 9 as possible.”
One man who sat at the back of the meeting and didn’t want to be identified said the proposed connector would go right in front of his house.
“I would be looking out my front window at it,” he said, adding he was at the meeting to learn more about why the route was selected. “It’s close. It makes more sense for them to go through Holden.”
The state’s former preferred route cut through the center of Holden and was eliminated because of its environmental impact, including the number of vernal pools in its path, Charette said, adding that it was “upper management” and the commissioner who had the final say.
While talking about the project’s costs, Heldmann said the rolling route connector has a benefit-to-cost ratio of 1.1 — or $1.10 in benefits for every $1 invested — over the 25- to 30-year lifespan of the proposed roadway based on the data provided. She said she didn’t understand “why they are pushing a project that doesn’t” have the data to justify construction.
“Economics 101 provides that a benefit-to-cost ratio of 1.0 [$1 in benefits for every $1 invested] is a viable benefit cost ratio,” Charette said.
Heldmann also told the 20 or so people in attendance at the meeting, which included Brewer Mayor Kevin O’Connell, that she thought the DOT has submitted a work plan for the project, but Charette said the state agency could not do so until after the final environmental impact statement is completed and they have a National Environmental Policy Act permit in hand.
NEPA “requires federal agencies to consider the environmental, social, and economic impacts of their actions and disclose them in a public decision-making document,” the MDOT’s website states.
Residents were particularly upset when Heldmann said at the meeting that many of the submitted comments collected by the MDOT about the draft environmental impact statement didn’t count.
“Because we didn’t have knowledge about how to play the game it made it easy for them to, how would you say, dismiss what we had to say,” planning board member Susan A. Dunham Shane said.
Charette said that it is true some of the comments did not address the project’s criteria, but all are included in the final report, which will be turned over to the Federal Highway Administration in the next week or so.
“The responses to substantive comments document is 323 pages long,” he said. “The first 17 pages provide a list of the substantive comments listed or listed opinions. Pages 19 through 43 are responses to the substantive comments.”
A draft version of the document is posted of the Eddington town website.