August 16, 2012

East-west highway bids sought well before law signed

The process was initiated without public notice, which may have violated the state's Freedom of Access law.

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The Maine Department of Transportation began seeking a contractor to conduct a feasibility study of an east-west highway across Maine weeks before Gov. Paul LePage signed the bill authorizing the study.

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Paul LePage
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The Legislature didn't approve the east-west highway study until March 27, but Gov. LePage's administration started seeking bids on the project two weeks before that. The process was initiated without public notice, which may have violated the state's Freedom of Access law.

AP

Critics of the long-debated coast-to-Canada proposal said the revelation is further evidence that proponents of the project and the LePage administration rammed the study bill through the Legislature without doing due diligence or considering the project's impact.

The Department of Transportation has the authority to commission such studies, and department officials said the administration was being proactive when it sought bids for the $300,000 study on March 13.

LePage signed the bill on April 5, nine days before the department stopped taking proposals from contractors.

The process was initiated without public notice, which may have violated the state's Freedom of Access law, according to a member of the state's Freedom of Information Coalition.

Ted Talbot, a spokesman for the Department of Transportation, acknowledged that it did not post public notice of the bid process on its website or in a daily newspaper. Talbot said the bid targeted pre-qualified consultants that the department solicits for specialized projects.

Mal Leary, a board member with the Freedom of Information Coalition and the owner of Capitol News Service, said transportation officials "can put out a request for proposals and target who they think will be interested, but they have to give public notice that they're doing it."

Sen. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley, the lead sponsor of the study bill, asked LePage on Monday to slow the study because of concerns among his constituents that the highway would lead to property seizures by eminent domain.

LePage announced Tuesday that the administration would extend the time line to complete the study.

Thomas, co-chairman of the Legislature's Transportation Committee, which vetted the bill, said Wednesday that he was unaware that the Department of Transportation initiated bidding during the legislative process.

"Nope, no idea," he said. "I thought they did (the bidding) after the bill was passed."

Thomas said, however, that the department is authorized to seek bids on any project it wants.

Critics of the east-west highway said it was unusual, and inappropriate, to approve a bid process that taxpayers were paying for and could have been changed by lawmakers.

"It shows the confidence they had in getting it through," said Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, who said he, too, was unaware that the department was accepting bids before the bill was enacted. "They were committing to receive (bids) before they got permission to do it. It just underscores how they thrust themselves into this thing."

Talbot said the process was initiated in "preparation for legislative action."

"We were being proactive," he said. "We did that because we knew that the Legislature would mandate a short schedule (to complete the study) and we wanted to be able to meet that schedule."

But critics said changes to the bill could have altered the scale and price of the study.

Initially, the proposal called for the state to fund the $300,000 study. The bill was changed so that the state will be reimbursed by the developer if the project advances.

Cianbro Corp. CEO Peter Vigue, a longtime advocate of the proposed $2 billion, 220-mile closed-access toll highway, was a driving force behind the legislation.

The company's top officials are longtime Republican campaign donors, so the project's opponents speculate that it has been fast-tracked so Republican lawmakers can claim job-creation victories while Cianbro uses the study to attract investors.

"The whole thing doesn't add up," Diamond said. "It adds up politically, but the numbers and chronology don't."

It's not unusual for companies to conduct investment-grade, or "bankable," project studies to draw investment. Some have questioned whether the $300,000 study authorized by the Legislature would serve that purpose.

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