When Paul LePage first ran for governor, in 2010, he emphasized that he wanted to target unnecessary government red tape and interference. That’s why it’s easy to be surprised by the extent to which the LePage administration has inserted itself into the approval process for the proposed Amtrak Downeaster layover building.
First, Gov. LePage – who usually wants Washington to stay far away from Maine matters – called for a federal environmental assessment for the proposed train maintenance facility in Brunswick. Then he nominated a project opponent to the board of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, the quasi-state agency that wants to build the facility. Now Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Patricia Aho has moved to take personal oversight of the project’s approval.
The state’s involvement in a proposal over which it has no final say is a splashy and entirely symbolic move, and nobody should count on the heightened environmental concern on the part of the governor and his allies to outlast this fall’s election.
LePage has taken an unusually high-profile role in the controversy. In April, he named Robert McEvoy, a neighborhood critic of the facility, to the passenger rail authority’s board of directors – a month after he requested a federal environmental impact statement on the proposed project. But the rail authority had already conducted a review, and the Federal Railroad Administration, the agency with the last word on the fate of the layover facility, determined in June that the plan will have no significant ecological impact and said it saw no need for a second assessment. (Neither did the Brunswick Town Council.)
What’s more, the Brunswick Downtown Association, with nearly 300 local business and individual members, has come out in favor of the facility, and the LePage administration has a history of placing business interests ahead of environmental ones. A 2013 Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram investigation found that DEP Commissioner Aho, a former lobbyist, has scuttled programs and fought laws that were opposed by her clients in the oil, chemical, drug and real estate development industries.
So it seems disingenuous that Aho is now questioning how long trains will idle at the Brunswick site, and has also cited oil storage and chemical and septic waste disposal issues. Three years after the layover project was announced – during what’s expected to be a close re-election campaign for LePage – these topics have apparently become urgent concerns to both the commissioner and her boss.
Whether or not the Downeaster layover facility is a worthwhile project, the LePage administration’s credibility on the plan is shaky at best, and its objections shouldn’t be a factor in the outcome of a proposal to which both critics and supporters have devoted a great deal of time and energy.