Traffic backed up on I-295 northbound in Freeport in this 2017 file photo. Shawn Patrick Ouellette / The Portland Press Herald

FREEPORT — Freeport town officials hope to incorporate a wide multi-use path into the design for two bridges scheduled for reconstruction. That comes with a hefty price tag and tight timeline, and town councilors are worried there won’t be enough time to have a transparent public process before the opportunity passes by. 

The I-295 Exit 20/Desert Road interchange overpass and the Exit 22/Mallet Dive interchange overpass, built in 1957, have been deemed structurally deficient and are slated to be replaced through a $19 million Competitive Highway Bridge Program Grant awarded last year. The project also includes two bridges in Yarmouth.

The Merrill Road Interchange Bridge, which carries Desert Road over I-295, sees 9,408 vehicles per day, and the Mallett Drive interchange, which carries Routes 125 and 126 over I-295, carries 16,878, according to data from the Maine Department of Transportation.

As traffic volumes between Portland and Brunswick grow, and with the I-295 corridor serving as a main corridor for the state’s economic markets in Portland, Boston and New York, officials decided it was time to replace the aging bridges, which were built at the same time as the interstate. Maine DOT plans to put the project out to bid in Sept. 2021 and hopes to complete construction in 2023. 

With the replacement of the 63-year-old bridges, Freeport officials are thinking about the next 60-plus years of growth and development in town. 

According to a memo from Town Manager Peter Joseph, staff recommends that at a minimum, the town should include five-foot sidewalks on both bridges, which would cost an estimated $195,000. 

Town councilors, members of the active living committee and several residents have said they would prefer a 12-foot-wide, multi-use path along each bridge that would help increase the connectivity between Freeport’s east and west sides and allow the town to offer a more integrated, safer recreational experience. The path would cost an estimated $1.2 million. 

In order to qualify for the committed federal grant funding and meet the Sept. 2021 deadline for bidding, Maine DOT is asking the town for a decision by the end of the year. 

However, this means that the project can’t go through the town’s budget process, which, according to Joseph, would “allow for the highest amount of resident input and council deliberation.”

There are two other options, he said, the first being a “supplemental appropriation, meaning that after a public hearing, the council would take the money out of the fund balance or reserve funds. This, Joseph said, while quick, is “less than ideal” and severely limits the opportunity for input. 

The other option, and the one which would make the most sense, would be to issue bonds. In Freeport, a bond amount that high triggers a special election referendum. 

A special election would allow town-wide input, but with a required 60-day minimum lead time, would the election between Christmas and New Year’s. 

The council would have to educate the community on the issue in a very short period of time and schedule the special election with little notice. 

“There’s no way to look at it other than to say it’s bad form,” Council Chair John Egan said. 

“While it is legally possible for us to go ahead and execute plans that commit a future council to paying for it, that is far from our usual practice and suspect as stewards of the town money,” he added. “The dollar amounts we’re talking about are significant.”

Councilor Sarah Tracy agreed, calling it “a major issue of transparency in our government,” and said rushing the process would make it “appear like there’s some sort of backroom deal or something’s wrong. It’s really important to make sure people have a chance to weigh in.” 

March, when the budget cycle is starting to take shape and there’s more room for input, would be a better time, Egan said, adding, “I don’t think we could get to that level of certainty much sooner than that.” 

Wayne Frankhauser, bridge program manager for the Maine DOT, said he would brainstorm creative ideas to see if there’s a way to give the town a little more time. Bridge committee officials will meet Wednesday to hammer out the details.

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