AUGUSTA, Maine — The man overseeing the proposed Interstate 395-Route 9 connector announced last week that the project is not on the Maine Department of Transportation’s work plan for the next three years, a delay one local official said will provide opponents time to kill the controversial plan.
The DOT’s $2.02 billion work plan for 2014-2016 was released earlier this month and lists 1,600 jobs it will undertake in the next three years.
“You will note that the I-395/Route 9 Study is not in the Work Plan for the next three years and cannot be scheduled for any future design work until a Record of Decision is received,” project manager Russell Charette said in his bimonthly email update sent Jan. 17 to towns affected by the plan.
The connector is envisioned as a means to ease heavy truck traffic between the Canadian Maritimes and the U.S. federal highway system.
The record of decision, one of several federal requirements for the project to proceed, is issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Charette said Tuesday.
“It’s a requirement in federal statute,” Charette said.
The DOT could not place the connector on the work plan until the final environmental impact statement is completed and it has a National Environmental Policy Act permit in hand, the project manager said.
The National Environmental Policy Act “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.
News of the DOT delay comes on the heels of proclamations made in the fall by the Brewer City Council and Eddington selectmen in opposition to the planned $61 million project, which was initiated in 2000.
“I was pleased that it did not make the work list but I remain cautious about the project’s future,” Brewer City Manager Steve Bost said. “I base that on past experience. We thought at one point it had been shelved and really it was proceeding below the radar.”
Bost was referencing the DOT’s decision at the end of 2011 to change its preferred route after years of no communication with the communities affected, which upset residents along the new route and area community officials.
The DOT selected its first preferred route — which went through the mostly unpopulated center of Holden — in 2003, but after spending years consulting with federal agencies, decided to change to a route that extends I-395 at its Wilson Street junction and would roughly follow the Holden-Brewer line until entering Eddington and connecting with Route 9.
Brewer officials were so upset that DOT officials did not discuss with them the decision to change the state’s preferred route that city councilors unanimously withdrew their support for the connector in March 2012. Eddington officials followed suit, passing their own resolve opposing the connector. Those resolves were reaffirmed in the fall of 2013.
The DOT also announced in April 2013 that the scope and scale of the project had been reduced, changing it from a limited access highway to a two-lane rolling rural route.
In addition to the DOT’s preferred route, there are two similar routes and a “no build” alternative also under consideration.
Arthur “Archie” Verow, who is serving his first term in the Maine House of Representatives and sits on the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Transportation, submitted a bill to quash the connector but it failed to make the list of bills considered this year by a 6-4 vote.
“I plan to submit it again at the regular session in January 2015,” Verow said Tuesday. “It’s not in that [three-year project] plan so that is somewhat of a relief. That means we get to stay and fight another day.”
In addition to the news that the connector project is not on the work plan for the next three years is the likelihood of a longer delay. Charette said the MDOT has informed officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to “prioritize their efforts to complete the environmental processing for those other projects due to be constructed this year before completing the BO [biological opinion] for the I-395/Route 9 Transportation Study.”
The biological opinion is needed by the DOT to complete the project’s final environmental impact statement, he said.
“Once we receive the Biological Opinion we can finalize the FEIS and submit it to [Federal Highway Administration] for review and approval,” Charette said. “Once we receive the Biological Opinion I will send out an update on the project.”