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East-west highway records sought in Maine

AUGUSTA, Maine — Environmentalists joined with civil libertarians and residents of northern Maine Friday to support a bill that would make memos and other planning documents for projects like the proposed 220-mile east-west highway project subject to public disclosure.

The Legislature’s Transportation Committee held a hearing on a bill sponsored by state Representative Jeff McCabe, Democrat of Skowhegan, which would make records, notes, summaries, memorandums, and other information on transportation projects that are a public-private partnership open to public review.

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‘‘The controversy around the east-west highway demonstrates the problem with our current law, which treats all of these documents as confidential,’’ McCabe, the assistant House majority leader, told the committee. ‘‘The very secrecy surrounding the feasibility study and the department’s plans has undermined public confidence and trust in the process.’’

The latest proposal for an east-west highway, which could also include a utility corridor connecting Calais and Coburn Gore, would be built with private investments estimated at around $2 billion. Some of those attending Friday’s hearing asserted that it qualifies as a public-private partnership ­because the Legislature last session appropriated $300,000 for an economic feasibility study.

While the state Transportation Department advertised for companies to do the study, little interest was shown and no analysis has been done, Deputy DOT Commissioner Bruce Van Note said. Speaking against McCabe’s bill, Van Note said the project is actually a private ­enterprise and therefore would not be subject to the public ­records release provision.

The American Civil Liberties Union’s Maine chapter disagreed, saying the east-west highway would be a public-
private partnership.

‘‘Decisions about whom the government enters into partnership with and how they spend our taxpayer money are certainly matters of public impor­tance,’’ Shenna Bellows, executive director of the ACLU of Maine, said in support of ­McCabe’s bill. ‘‘The public’s right to know is essential to ­democracy, and it is the only way we can hold our government accountable. Too much secrecy paves the way for bad decisions.’’

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Lisa Pohlman, executive ­director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said that if the project is deemed to be a public-private partnership, ‘‘the public will have no access to any information about the project, including the proposed route, which could cross the land of hundreds of Maine property owners’’ as well as properties under conservation ownership including the Appalachian Trail, the Penobscot and Kennebec rivers, wetlands, and important wildlife habitats.

An east-west highway has been proposed and rejected six times since 1944, and the rejections came mainly because significant benefits to Mainers and their communities could not be assured, according to Sierra Club’s Karen Woodsum.

‘‘There are still many unanswered questions about this project, and small business owners and citizens have the right to know,’’ said Woodsum.

Taking no formal position for or against the bill, Maine Turnpike executive director ­Peter Mills said the law allowing confidentiality of public-
private highways was enacted to protect private contractors from having to make public finan­cial and other inside information that could affect their competitive position.

‘‘They are simply not going to reveal all of that information,’’ said Van Note.

Mills also said one of the biggest impediments to the project will be bottlenecks at border crossings. American federal border officials, he said, can make it very difficult for cargo-bearing trucks to cross.

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