The town and the citizens group Think Again live to fight another day against the Maine Turnpike Authority’s proposed York toll plaza.
In a “strongly unanimous” decision Monday night, the Board of Selectmen agreed to join Think Again in appealing a recent state decision allowing the plaza to go forward — an action that could delay the project start for many months or potentially end it altogether.
Selectmen agreed to spend $9,000 from their contingency account, while Think Again will kick in another $3,000 to file an appeal with the state Superior Court. The town’s attorney on this matter, Scott Anderson of Verrill Dana in Portland, said he would cap the legal cost at no more than $12,000.
The two groups are contesting a recent order by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection granting a permit for the proposed plaza — an open-road toll plaza with cash lanes and highway speed tolling. The town and Think Again contend the best alternative is an all-electronic tolling gantry with no cash lanes.
According to Anderson, several potential legal issues with the MDEP order can be raised in appeal. For one, the data on which it based its decision comes from a 2014 study – data too old to inform a project that won’t start until 2018 at the earliest, he said.
Further, he said, the DEP seemed to set aside its own environmental rules. He argues that an AET gantry with no impact to the environment at all is less impactful than the proposed plaza, which will disturb wetlands. The MTA did agree to mitigate the wetlands elsewhere in the state.
Anderson did tell the board that there is no case law on these issues. “This case ends up tripping over things that haven’t come up before,” he said.
“The argument on updated data is a valid and important one. Technology evolves so quickly,” said Board Chairman Todd Frederick, mentioning the fact that Massachusetts has gone entirely without cash booths. “I feel strongly that they should have to look at that data again — not only for the residents of York but the state of Maine and also the bondholders.”
Public comments were nearly all supportive of the appeal. A number of Think Again members urged the board to join them, with most of them echoing co-chair Joan Jarvis, who said, “This toll plaza relocation will harm the citizens of York for decades to come.” But rank and file citizens also spoke in favor, like resident Dennis O’Connor who said technology is going to make cash collections a thing of the past. “The world is changing. I support going forward with this.”
MTA Director Peter Mills, in response to one resident who said he felt the town had been bullied by the MTA, called the charge “absurd. We’re not bullying anyone. This has been a thoughtful process. We’ve studied this as thoroughly as anyone could study this, and we came to a solemn decision that we needed to continue collecting cash because we have much more cash collections than many other states.”
Not all residents were supportive of the appeal. Resident Mike Micciche said, “I don’t think we’re going to win this. You’re always going to have out of date data for a four to five-year project. This could just go on and on. The MTA is going to keep throwing money at this and get their way one way or the other. I’m asking you to stop spending money on this.”
But selectmen tended to disagree with that theory. “I agree that data is flawed because it’s so old and needs to be updated,” said Mike Estes.
Robert Palmer was less enthusiastic. He said he’s heard from people who do not support moving forward with an appeal and who think the town has spent enough money. “I’m somewhat sympathetic to that,” he said. However, for $9,000, “I can agree to support our citizens. We need to stick up for one another.”