by Susan Sharon
MPBN news story
An overflow crowd turned out in support of a bill that doesn’t mention the proposed east-west highway project by name, but could require more information to be released about it. As Susan Sharon reports, lawmakers on the Legislature’s Transportation Committee are being tasked with balancing the public’s right to know with company trade secrets in a highly competitive business climate.
Just last year, Maine lawmakers authorized spending $300,000 for a feasibility study of the proposed $2 billion, 220-mile east-west highway toll road that would run from Calais to Coburn Gore. The money is expected to come out of the budget of the Maine Department of Transportation.
Assistant Majority Leader Jeff McCabe of Skowhegan voted for the bill and says he didn’t think too much about the money until he started campaigning door-to-door last summer. And then he learned just how much interest there is in knowing more about the project.
“People on both sides of the issue have strong views but sadly, little information about what is being planned is available to folks,” he said.
That’s because under current law, such information is confidential. So now McCabe is sponsoring LD 721, an Act to Provide Transparency in Public-Private Partnerships for Transportation Projects. He told members of the Transportation Committee the bill would apply to projects worth more than $25 million.
“It makes all records, notes, summaries, working papers, inner-office, intra-office memorandum and materials available to the public,” he said.
McCabe says keeping such information secret only serves to undermine the public’s confidence and trust in the process. Lisa Pohlmann, executive director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine agrees. She says the proposed route could cross the land of hundreds of property and homeowners, two major rivers, the Penobscot and Kennebec, as well as the Appalachian Trail, dozens of wetlands and other wildlife habitat.
“Surely, the public should be entitled to know information such as the proposed route, the purpose, what types of public and private resources will be affected, whether the proposal plans to use eminent domain authority to take private property, who the developer will be and the presumption should be the disclosure of this type of information.”
But at least one lawmaker questions whether the transparency bill even applies to the east-west highway project. Rep. Wayne Parry of Arundel is the ranking Republican on the Transportation Committee. He raised the issue in this exchange with Rep. McCabe.
“The east-west highway project is a private project. It’s not a public-private collaboration,” Perry said.
“I guess that’s a question for this committee to define, but it seems to be much broader than a private project at this time,” McCabe responded. “It seems to be involving DOT, and you know, going forward it seems like it will need to involve DOT.”
Shenna Bellows of the ACLU of Maine says her organization doesn’t take a position on the east-west highway project, but she says her group is supporting the bill because of a broader principle at stake.
“And that is the health of our Democracy,” Bellows said. “A government of the people, by the people, for the people depends on an informed citizenry, a citizenry that understands how our decisions are being made and why.”
The only person to testify against the bill, Deputy DOT Commissioner Bruce Van Note, says there’s a reason his department likes to partner with private companies for infastructure projects. For one thing, he says it means not having to wait for money to flow from Washington. And for another, he says such partnerships are an economic development tool.
“To implement that tool you are asking private entities to put up significant sums of money, certainly hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, to do engineering, a whole bunch of studies that as soon as you provide that to a governmental agency, that it becomes public, they won’t do it.”
In other words, says Van Note, without confidentiality private companies will be unlikely to participate in future projects. Committee members are expected to consider the bill in more detail at a work session next month.