May 26, 2020
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State report says benefits of I-395 connector outweigh risks, but community resistance will persist

BREWER, Maine — The Maine Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration say a controversial, drawn-out proposal for a new road connecting Interstate 395 and Route 9 would have minimal effects on the surrounding environment.

The agencies released a final version of their environmental impact statement, or EIS, late last month, which explores the potential fallout from the new construction and traffic on the 34,400-acre study area surrounding the project.

“The build alternatives would not substantially impact the physical geography; climate; geological resources; sand and gravel aquifers; wild and scenic rivers; groundwater; essential fish habitats; state endangered or threatened species,” the agencies wrote in their statement.

There are several endangered and threatened species in the study area, including Atlantic salmon, Atlantic sturgeon and shortnose sturgeon. The agencies, which consulted with the National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and others, said that the sturgeon species would not be affected because their habitats exist outside of the action area — or areas that might be directly or indirectly affected by a project.

Atlantic salmon, which have critical habitat in the area, could see “short-term adverse effects,” during construction of the proposed project, but they would be “small in scope” and resolve after construction wraps up, according to the study.

The benefits of the project on traffic congestion and mobility far outweigh the potential negatives, the report argues.

The full EIS may be viewed at www.i395-rt9-study.com/home.html.

After 30 days, the highway administration will complete and issue a “record of decision” — signaling a formal approval of the EIS. That’s the last step in the study process and allows MDOT and the highway administration to move forward with preliminary designs and land acquisition based on what funds are available.

However, construction won’t start within the next three years, as the project wasn’t included in MDOT’s recent work plan. That gives opponents more time to fight the proposal.

The goal of the connector project, projected to cost somewhere between $61 million and $81 million, is to provide a better link between Interstate 395 and Route 9, moving heavy truck traffic off routes 1A and 46, improving traffic flow and easing safety concerns.

MDOT and the highway administration have been exploring their options since 2000, looking at more than 70 potential routes, as well as the alternative of building nothing.

In 2011, the MDOT backed one of several proposed routes, named 2B-2, which 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 officials were so upset that MDOT officials did not discuss the decision to change the state’s preferred route from one that cut through the unoccupied center of Holden with them that city councilors unanimously withdrew their support for the connector in March 2012.

During a meeting in January of this year, the Brewer City Council passed a resolve reiterating its opposition to the project, instead backing the “no-build” option.

Opponents have argued that the preferred route does not meet the system linkage issue and doesn’t solve traffic congestion issues. It also could displace 22 Brewer residents. Transportation officials also have left two other alternative routes — 5A2B2 and 5B2B2 — on the list for comparison.

Maine Rep. Arthur “Archie” Verow, a Democrat in his second term representing a portion of Brewer, has proposed a bill that would prevent the state from moving forward with the controversial road project as planned.

That bill, LD 47, would remove the state’s favored connector route from consideration. The state’s Transportation Committee is slated to discuss the bill during a meeting that starts at 2 p.m. Tuesday. Live audio will be available on the Legislature’s website.

The connector project met resistance from officials and residents in Brewer and Eddington, including Verow, a former Brewer city councilor.

Opponents largely have backed the no-build alternative, which MDOT cautioned in its EIS “would not satisfy the study’s purpose” because it would not improve system linkage, improve safety or reduce congestion.

Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.

BDN writer Nok-Noi Ricker contributed to this report.


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