EDDINGTON, Maine — An informational meeting Wednesday on the proposed Interstate 395-Route 9 connector road drew at least 150 area residents, a large majority of them opposed to the route, the project itself or both.
The meeting was the first the Maine Department of Transportation has conducted here since it received federal approval of the project on June 23, when the Federal Highway Administration issued a record of decision identifying the state’s preferred route, Alternative 2B-2, as the environmentally preferred alternative for the estimated $61 million project.
That means the project has made the transition from a study to a project, Scott Rollins, the department’s assistant director of planning, said at the start of Wednesday’s roughly two-hour meeting during which he provided an overview of the study process, which began back in 2000, and discussed what happens next.
The route approved by federal transportation officials extends I-395 where it ends at Wilson Street in Brewer and roughly follows the Holden-Brewer line until entering Eddington and connecting with Route 9, where a stop sign will be added.
The two-lane, limited access road is meant to ease heavy truck traffic and improve safety on nearby Routes 46 and 1A, while creating a more direct link from Canada to the U.S. highway system.
However, residents and community leaders in Brewer, Eddington and Holden have expressed concerns about the project, which they say is being forced down their throats.
Brewer City Councilor Kevin O’Connell said people from the three affected communities “do not support this process.” He noted that members of a local regional transportation board earlier this year said they felt forced to endorse the road project when state officials told them they would lose $57 million in regional road project funding if they failed to do so.
“Who is pulling your strings and who is pulling their strings?” O’Connell asked state transportation officials.
Rollins said the preferred route was the only one acceptable to the federal government. He also said the the state’s transportation commissioner, David Bernhardt, strongly believes it is necessary to improve safety in an area that has 10 high-crash sites.
“Our issue is we feel this is a very important project and we want to move forward,” he said.
He added that the decision to build is not political, as the project has survived three governors.
Rep. Arthur Verow, D-Brewer, said it was his understanding that community opposition to the project “carries a lot of weight” with state officials.
“In some cases, that’s true,” Rollins said.
But not in this one.
“The regional significance of this project is really what drives it forward,” Rollins added.
Verow also asked if the state could tweak the route to minimize impact on abutters, which Rollins said is possible, and if the state planned to install noise barriers such as the one it put up along Interstate 95 near Broadway.
At least one attendee, David Peppard of Eddington, said the connector is needed. As it stands, heavy truck traffic on Route 46 makes the road “very unsafe. We aren’t able to walk, ride bikes or ride horses” along it, he said.
According to Rollins, the project timeline begins in 2016-17 with surveying. In 2017-18, the connector’s preliminary design will be developed and another public information meeting will be conducted, Rollins said.
Final design and the final public hearing are slated for 2018-19, and construction is expected to begin in 2021-22. If all goes to plan, the connector will open to traffic sometime between 2023 and 2025, he said.
An estimated eight homes will be “displaced” and another 54 properties in the three neighboring communities will be affected, according to concept plans posted on the state’s I-395-Route 9 connector website.
Rollins said during Wednesday’s update that the department is required to conduct a market assessment for those properties and must provide “just compensation.” Property owners who feel the state’s offer is unfair can appeal, he said.
Area resident Daniel Cox pointed out that for some, a home’s sentimental value is higher than its fair market value.
“If they wanted to sell it, they’d be doing it,” he said.