AUGUSTA, Maine — Residents fed up with traffic faced off against residents fed up with a lengthy, contentious state and federal effort to build a road connecting Interstate 395 with Route 9 during a Legislative hearing Tuesday.
The public hearing before the Legislature’s Transportation Committee focused on a bill proposed by Rep. Arthur “Archie” Verow, D-Brewer, that would stop the state from pursuing construction of its preferred route, labeled 2B-2.
That favored route would extend I-395 at its Wilson Street junction and roughly would follow the Holden-Brewer line until entering Eddington and connecting with Route 9. The road is estimated to cost between $61 million and $81 million.
The goal of the project, which has been in the works since 2000, is to improve connections between the Maritime Provinces and Interstate 95, improve traffic flow on Routes 1A and 46, and reduce the number of commercial vehicles and heavy trucks using those roads, according to the Maine Department of Transportation.
Republican Rep. Peter Lyford, representing Eddington, Veazie, Clifton, Holden and part of Brewer, lives on Route 46 in Eddington. He told the committee that in the wake of 1994’s North American Free Trade Agreement, more and more Canadian trucks and tourists started using Route 46 to get to Interstates 395 and 95.
He and two other Route 46 residents spoke in support of the project, lamenting the days when people could walk, bike or jog along the road. Now, it’s unsafe, they argue. The heavy truck traffic also has caused problems with the condition of the road, they said.
Residents of Eddington and Brewer, strong opponents of the proposed project, spoke in favor of killing the Route 2B-2 proposal.
Larry Adams of Brewer argued that past MDOT reports found Route 2B-2 only met one of the state’s four criteria for the project. Still, in 2011, the state announced 2B-2 as its preferred route. He said he recognizes the need for improved safety and traffic flow on area roads, but this route links up with Route 9 at a point where it will make little difference in traffic or safety.
The plan also would displace several residents, including one of Adams’ neighbors, he said.
Gretchen Heldmann of Eddington said the project likely would reduce truck traffic in front of her Route 9 home, but she still opposes it, calling it “a complete waste of taxpayer dollars” and a “short-term, Band-Aid fix,” which just a few years ago failed to meet the state’s own project requirements.
When questioned by Sen. Bill Diamond about why MDOT changed its mind on 2B-2, Legislative liaison for MDOT Nina Fisher said the roughly 70 other potential routes the state looked at would have been “too environmentally damaging.”
Fisher told the committee the Army Corps of Engineers informed MDOT and the Federal Highway Administration that the Corps would consider a permit approval for option 2B-2 alone because that route had the “least dramatic” impact on the local ecology. That news resulted in MDOT’s reconsideration of 2B-2. That doesn’t mean the project is guaranteed to get the necessary federal approvals and permits, she cautioned.
The study area features many small bodies of water and vernal pools and areas in which one might build a road project are extremely limited, Fisher said.
If the Legislature were to back Verow’s bill, it would “in essence legislatively kill the project,” she added.
In other Transportation Committee business, Verow proposed a second bill that would direct the state to name the Interstate 95 rest area in Hampden after former Maine governor, Brewer native and Civil War hero Joshua L. Chamberlain. That bill also was up for public hearing Tuesday.
Verow said that along with recognizing the historic significance of Chamberlain in Maine and across the country, he hoped the name change would direct visitors to local landmarks, especially Brewer’s Chamberlain Freedom Park, which features a Chamberlain memorial and a historic Underground Railroad site.
“Chamberlain’s legacy is not only of statewide but also national importance,” Verow said. “More people should know he was born and raised in Brewer. Naming the rest area for him is an opportunity to celebrate our local history and invite visitors to spend time in our area.”
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.