Brewer News

Planners claim state forced them to approve I-395 connector project

BREWER, Maine — The group that plans improvements to roads and transportation infrastructure in Greater Bangor voted Friday to add the controversial Interstate 395-Route 9 connector to its list of projects after being told by state officials that funding for all projects in the region would be delayed if the plan wasn’t approved.

Characterizing it as a “distasteful vote” and saying they were “held hostage,” members of the Bangor Area Comprehensive Transportation System’s policy committee said they did not like being forced to approve a new three-year plan that includes the Interstate 395-Route 9 connector or risk losing $57 million in road project funding this year for the Bangor urbanized region, which includes 10 neighboring communities.

The BACTS committee initially approved planned 2016-2019 transportation improvement projects on Feb. 16 but shortly thereafter learned the Maine Department of Transportation had added the connector and other projects to the state’s list of projects for the area. The state’s decision forced the BACTS committee to file a second 2016-2019 plan that includes the connector because the two project lists must align to move forward, according to both agencies.

The panel traditionally has just added any transportation projects the Maine DOT has requested, BACTS Director Rob Kenerson said Friday, but some member communities oppose the planned connector route.

Twelve voting members of the BACTS policy committee participated in the Brewer meeting, along with three visiting Maine DOT members and two Federal Highway Administration representatives.

Deputy DOT Commissioner Jon Nass said he spoke to Commissioner David Bernhardt before the meeting and wanted to stress that the connector “is a project of regional significance. It impacts the entire state.”

“He asked me to talk about the importance of the [Bangor area plan] being a mirror image of our [state plan],” Nass said of Bernhardt. “That’s absolutely critical.”

When asked whether the connector plan could be removed from the Bangor plan with the other projects moving forward, Nass said that was not possible.

Nass said if the BACTS committee voted down the amended plan, which is posted on its website, it would mean “serious ramifications” for communities in the region that are planning on the $57 million in funds for road projects.

“It appears that BACTS is being held hostage,” Brewer City Councilor Jerry Goss said. “It’s either do this or you’re not going to get all the other projects in town.”

Scott Rollins, assistant director of the state’s Bureau of Transportation Systems Planning, said the panel also was tying the state’s hands by not supporting the measure.

“This is not the forum to discuss the merits of the project … [or] hold a process hostage,” Rollins said. “There are huge ramifications … for you and for us.”

Of the $57 million in planned state projects for the region, $12 million has been set aside for BACTS for projects in Bangor, Brewer, Hampden, Holden, Orono, Old Town, Orrington and Penobscot County, among others. The remaining $45 million is for Maine DOT projects in the same region.

“This not only affects the transportation projects for our roads; it would shut down the Community Connector, improvements at the airport. … Bangor has no option but to support the [new plan],” Dana Wardwell, Bangor Public Works director, said just before the vote. “We feel it’s unfortunate that we’re backed in a corner, but Bangor doesn’t really have an option.”

Frank Higgins, Brewer’s city engineer, said the forced vote has “put us in a very uncomfortable position.”

“This is a very distasteful vote,” John Rouleau, Old Town Public Works director, said. “My hand is raised because there is somebody pushing it.”

The Maine Department of Transportation in August announced plans to amend its three-year work plan unveiled in January 2015 by adding the planned Interstate 395-Route 9 connector.

Some on the committee, including Brewer Planner Linda Johns, who has been involved with the project since its 2000 inception, spoke strongly against plans for the new roadway, which would displace eight homes. The state’s preferred route, 2B2, would extend I-395 where it ends at Wilson Street and would roughly follow the Holden-Brewer line until entering Eddington and connecting with 4.5 miles of rebuilt Route 9.

Johns said with the number of paper-related mills that have closed since work on the project began 16 years ago, traffic numbers are down and the estimated $61 million should be spent on other needed projects, such as improving the connection between Bangor and Bar Harbor.

Eddington planner Gretchen Heldmann and Brewer resident Larry Adams, who would lose his home if the connector were built, both made statements opposing the proposed two-lane rolling rural route. Rep. Peter Lyford, R-Eddington, spoke in favor.

Approval of the state plan is the last step before the Federal Highway Administration can issue its Record of Decision.

The Record of Decision is the final step in the Environmental Impact Statement process and identifies the selected alternative, presents the basis for the decision, identifies the alternatives considered, specifies the “environmentally preferable alternative” and provides information to avoid, minimize and compensate for environmental impacts, the Maine DOT’s I-395-Route 9 connector website states.

It is the sixth of seven steps needed to complete the project.

“Watching this unfold today, in my humble opinion, is precisely why people have lost faith in government,” Brewer City Manager Steve Bost told the panel.

He described Thursday’s process as “an unyielding bureaucracy that is unwilling to listen and unwilling to move” and said state and federal officials have not listened to the communities, including Brewer which has had three unanimous City Council votes opposing the state’s plans.

“I believe that if the Maine public knew what was going on in this room today, that all those projects would be essentially set aside if you do what is in your heart. I think they would be very displeased,” Bost said.

Johns was the only panel member to vote against adding the connector project and other projects to the BACTS plan. Higgins abstained in the vote that was endorsed.

Bangor Area Comprehensive Transportation System, or BACTS, is an organization designated by the federal and state government to carry out transportation planning in Greater Bangor.

The I-395-Route 9 connector is designed to improve transportation between the Canadian Maritimes and the federal highway system.

By Nok-Noi Ricker, BDN Staff