By Michael Shepherd
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.
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.
Shenna Bellows, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said confidentiality protections are too broad, and McCabe's bill would benefit future public-private partnerships, even if there aren't any now.
In written testimony, Bellows said "no agency should receive a blanket exception for all activities surrounding a particular program."
But Van Note and Peter Mills, executive director of the Maine Turnpike Authority, said allowing public view of partnership documents in projects' infancies would render the public-private program meaningless.
Both added that they have never received public-private partnership applications, but they said companies considering large investments in Maine need protection from competition before the department acts on project details.
"If you're going to remove this confidentiality provision, get rid of (the partnerships)," Mills said. "Repeal it. Don't leave it on the books as a false representation that they're available in this state because without these confidentiality provisions, you probably don't have a workable tool."
Much of the public hearing, though, served as a referendum on the east-west highway project, with residents of communities near the corridor's proposed route speaking not just to transparency, but to criticisms of the highway project.
Charles Fitzgerald of Atkinson, a Piscataquis County town just east of Dover-Foxcroft, said he and many others are concerned because if the project is approved, it might not be just a road, but a 2,000-foot corridor that would cut through sensitive environmental areas.
In a 2012 interview with MaineBiz, Vigue said the project could be more than a highway: It could be a "transportation, utility and communications corridor" that the magazine described as "a 2,000-foot-wide swath that leaves room for future needs -- whatever they might be."
And Robert Morrison, of Charleston in western Penobscot County, said the scope of the project leaves the possibility open to an oil pipeline running alongside the highway.
"Would you want a partner that kept secrets from you? Particularly a partner that had tried to deceive you for a year or more?" he asked legislators. "No, no, no."
Michael Shepherd can be contacted at 620-7015 or at:
On Twitter: @mikeshepherdmeTweet