The Maine DOT says it was just anticipating authorization, but critics say it shows a rush to advance the east-west project.
by Steve Mistler, 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.
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.
Pete Didisheim of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, which opposes the highway, said, “The entire purpose of this bill is to help a private company seek financing for a massive highway that Maine people don’t want.”
Alan Grover, a spokesman for Cianbro, said Vigue was unavailable for comment.
The company has not released detailed maps of the proposed route of the highway. Didisheim said Cianbro should “show people the map” before initiating the study.
Nathan Howard, a planner for the Department of Transportation, said the department received one bid, from HNTB, a national firm. He said the bid was rejected because it “didn’t meet the scope” of the study. He acknowledged that cost was an issue, too.
Didisheim said the department and the project’s proponents may have significantly underestimated how much a bankable analysis would cost.
Supporters of the project are adjusting their political message.
Before Thomas asked LePage to slow down the study process, the Maine House Republicans Facebook page said the project would create more than 2,000 private-sector jobs. LePage, in a booklet released by the administration in May, also touted the project.
In a statement released Tuesday, LePage said the east-west highway was “an idea that’s been around for a dozen years and that’s what it is, an idea. We must explore the facts and go on a fact-finding mission, and that is what the state is doing. Right now, we need to decide where we want to put an east-west highway, is it feasible, and what would the costs be.”
Diamond said lawmakers and the administration should have been more thoughtful before passing the study.
“They wanted to push this thing through, but now dust kicks up,” he said. “It’s made the whole process look a little foolish.”