March 23, 2013

East-west highway foes pursue access to information

Much of a hearing on confidentiality also serves as a forum for criticisms of the proposed $2 billion project.

By Michael Shepherd mshepherd@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA — Opponents of a proposed east-west highway across Maine packed a legislative hearing Friday to lobby lawmakers for more access to information about the controversial project.

click image to enlarge

Jeff McCabe

Contributed photo

They backed a bill that would strip the confidentiality provision from an existing law that governs access to information on major public-private partnerships involving the Maine Department of Transportation.

But DOT officials said the bill would not apply to the east-west highway project. They also said that if the bill passes, it could discourage businesses from forming partnerships with the department because proprietary information might be disclosed, which would hamper economic development.

Assistant House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, said his bill, L.D. 721, was motivated by constituent concerns surrounding the proposed $2 billion project, which would run from the Calais area on the New Brunswick border to the Coburn Gore area on the Quebec border.

McCabe told the Transportation Committee that much of the opposition to the east-west highway, especially north of his district in Somerset County, "is based on the lack of information that's out there."

In written testimony, McCabe said the bill was not specifically about the east-west highway but was aimed at fostering more informed community discussion of major transportation projects.

"If you drive around rural Somerset and Piscataquis (counties), the opposition has become visible to say the least," McCabe said. "Transportation planning decisions, capital investment decisions and project decisions, particularly in these challenging economic times, are definitely matters of public concern."

The bill would remove the DOT's authority to restrict public access to records from transportation projects with an "initial capital cost" of $25 million or more, or when the project would establish tolls on roads that were previously toll-free.

Records related to such public-private partnerships are now confidential until the DOT determines a project meets agency standards or until the proposal is finally rejected by the department.

Bruce Van Note, deputy commissioner of the Maine DOT, said the east-west corridor proposal is currently a private project, outside the scope of the law allowing the department to participate in public-private partnerships.

Furthermore, he said, there's never been an application to the department for any public-private partnership.

But after his testimony, Van Note acknowledged that the DOT has sent mixed messages on the project.

In March 2012, DOT Commissioner David Bernhardt appeared at a New Brunswick forum with Peter Vigue, the Cianbro Corp. president and CEO who is the highway project's main champion. The Bangor Daily News reported then that Bernhardt referenced the possibility of a public-private partnership.

In April, DOT spokesman Ted Talbot said a feasibility study could include examining a variety of public-private partnerships that would make the highway project economically viable.

Last year, the Legislature also directed the DOT to conduct a $300,000 economic feasibility study of the highway. Gov. Paul LePage, a project supporter, slowed the study last year after a Republican senator's constituents raised concerns. Van Note said the DOT has spent "a few thousand dollars" to draft a request-for-proposal to conduct the study, which drew no response.

When Rep. Wayne Parry, R-Arundel, said the state was acting "as an outside entity," on what is now a private project, McCabe said he questioned whether it could work in that manner.

"It is a branch of government and I think something we should push for as much transparency on as possible," he said.

(Continued on page 2)

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